The only blemish on the Houston Cougars’ 2015 season was at the hands of the Connecticut Huskers 20-17.
And on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m., Houston (4-0, 1-0) will seek a different outcome. The game is on ESPN.
Still, coach Tom Herman insists this contest for his team isn’t about redemption.
“We don’t have much to talk about, but I do believe that our returning players on our team are better than they were last season,” he said. “This program has lost one football game since the beginning of December 2014, and we have had a lot of big games in that two-year time span. There is a bit of internal sense of liability, of atonement, to right some of the wrongs that occurred.”
There’s no question, however, that the Cougars are entering the contest with a lot of momentum, especially after a 64-3 victory at Texas State Sept. 24.
For starters, Houston reached the Bobcats’ red zone six times and scored each time.
“We were not playing well the first few games, and you have to run the ball down there, because you’ve got more bodies in less space,” Herman said. “It becomes difficult to throw the football, so you’ve got to run it. Our offensive line grew up a little bit on Saturday against Texas State in terms of the way we ran the football.”
Herman said he learned plenty from the loss such as making offensive adjustments and player fatigue that resulted in playing Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Memphis in a three-week stretch. He noted UConn had a bye week before facing the Cougars at home a year ago.
“I learned that we were very stubborn offensively in terms of our approach and trying to lean on the inside run game while knowing that was the strength of their defense,” he said. “Cincinnati and Memphis were hard-fought-down-to-the-wire games that took a lot out of our football team. I learned we have to be very mindful of the state of the team week to week in terms of their mental and physical exhaustion levels and take every step necessary to make sure they’re in peak mental and physical condition when the foot hits the ball on gameday.”
The Huskers’ defensive strength, thanks to the 3-4 alignment, continues to be stopping the inside run thanks to tackles Folorunso Fatukasi and Mikal Myers, who “are as good as any you would find in our league, and they are big,” Herman said.
So UConn stacks the box on first and second downs then drop eight back into coverage.
“We’ve got to get the ball into our playmakers’ hands when they get out in space,” the coach said. “We’ve got to pick our spots when and how we run the ball inside. We’re not going to abandon that, because that is who we are. We are better up front now than we were at this game last year. We’ve got to make more of an effort to get the ball away from those big bodies inside.”
As a team the Cougars have 218 rushes for 893 yards and 13 touchdowns led by running back Duke Catalon’s 225 yards on 48 carries.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has completed 67 passes for 936 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Defensively, Houston has given up a total of 42 points in four games, which means the Cougars are accomplishing one important goal.
“We’ve stopped the run and made teams one dimensional,” Herman said. “If you can stop the run without adding players to the box, then you are going to make life difficult for the offenses, and we’re doing that right now.”