The Downhill Slide That Has Been UH Football

Dana Holgorsen after a loss to Washington State at NRG Stadium in 2019

Ever since the Houston Cougars went 22-4 under head coach Tom Herman in 2015-16, the motto that was the “H-Town Takeover” took a subtle turn over the course of five years and counting.

In Herman’s first season, the Cougars had a near perfect record at 13-1, and won a conference title to go with a New Years Six win in the Peach Bowl over number #9 Florida State in 2015.

In 2016, the Cougars took the college football world by storm at a sold out NRG Stadium to defeat #3 ranked Oklahoma Sooners on a national stage, and that’s when the dream a G5 team could make the four team playoff began.

Although, that dream ended abruptly, with a tough loss to Navy, and soon after, a rejection from the Big 12 as the conference decided not to expand.

The expansion news followed with an embarrassing 38-16 loss to SMU, which began the rumors that Herman was looking to go to another school.

The Cougars would eventually bounce back, with a huge win at sold out TDECU Stadium over #5 Louisville, where the Coogs sacked eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson eleven times in a 36-10 route on national television where fans stormed the field.

Unfortunately this was the last time the stadium would sell out, and began the slow fall from the hilltop.

Greg Ward Jr. celebrating in confetti after the Cougars 38-24 win over Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The following week after the Louisville win, the Herman rumors amped up, with reports that he was in talks with LSU to take their head coach vacancy on a night before the Cougars played their final game against Memphis.

ESPN reporter Cole Cubelic approached Herman pregame and asked him to address the rumors, where Herman stated “Don’t believe anything that you are reading” and that his focus was on “beating Memphis”, with Herman clearly uncomfortable and irritated with the interview, that he quickly rushed into the locker room.

The Cougars fell to Memphis in a 48-44 shootout, which resulted in the Tigers scoring within the last minute to win the game.

The following morning, it was announced that Herman accepted the head coaching job at the University of Texas, leaving fans and even the players with a bad taste in their mouth.

The football program acted quick to look for a new head coach, as they announced that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando would be the interim coach for the upcoming Las Vegas Bowl.

On December 9, 2016, Houston officially named Major Applewhite as Head Coach, just eight days before the bowl game, where the Cougars would lose 34-10 with a gutted staff to San Diego State. Orlando joined Herman’s staff on the Longhorns following the bowl loss.

THE FIRST STEP THAT WENT WRONG

After Herman’s departure, and a #36 recruiting class still intact for the team’s future, the selection that set the program in the wrong direction was the hiring process in 2016.

The Cougars had head coach candidates that included former LSU coach Les Miles, former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando who was interim coach at the time, and current Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley who was offensive coordinator at the time under Bob Stoops.

Before I go into the Applewhite tenure, here are how those candidates faired after not being hired by the Cougars.

Lincoln Riley: Four straight Big 12 titles, three CFP appearances, 2018 Big 12 coach of the year at Oklahoma

Lane Kiffin: 26-13 in three seasons at FAU, winning 2 C-USA championships, currently 6-5 at Ole Miss

Les Miles: 3-9 in 2019, 0-9 in 2020, stepped down after allegations of inappropriate conduct

Todd Orlando: defensive coordinator for Texas from 2017-19, fired after 2019, now defensive coordinator for USC

Riley became a force with the Sooners, with high octane offensives and many wins that led to conference titles and three CFP appearances

Kiffin had a successful run with the FAU Owls, winning two Conference-USA championships before departing to Ole Miss

Les Miles looked as he had the Jayhawks going into the right direction in 2019 only to go winless in 2020 and resigned due to the allegations

Orlando led Texas defense to rankings of #30, #41, and #65 in team defense from 2017-19 before his firing, and at Houston Orlando led the defense to a team defensive ranking of #53 and #30 from 2015-16, a far cry of what was about to come for the Cougar defense.

THE MAJOR APPLEWHITE ERA

Former Houston head coach Major Applewhite (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2017, Major Applewhite had countless talent to work with in premier defender Ed Oliver in his sophomore year, the dynamic receiver duo of Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar, former five-star QB Kyle Allen who transferred from Texas A&M, and Partick Carr at running back.

The team started 4-1, but finished 7-5, Allen was benched for Kyle Postma in week three after struggling in a loss against Texas Tech, and their biggest win of season came on a come from behind win over USF where Quarterback D’Eriq King made a miracle throw on 4th and 23, and scrambled to the end zone for the win.

The Cougars would lose to the Fresno Bulldogs in the Hawaii Bowll 33-27 to end the season, finishing at 7-5. The Cougar offense had a big dip offensively from 2016 to 2017, going from #26 to #65 in team offense.

The biggest dip was defensively under new defensive coordinator Mark D’onofrio (Sorry, Coog fans), where in 2016 under Orlando the Cougars finished #13 in total defense, and falling to #89 in 2017 under D’onofrio.

From Orlando’s blitz heavy package in 2016 to D’onofrio’s bend and break defense would be an issue for the Cougars.

In 2018, D’Eriq King would be named the starting quarterback, and after Brian Johnson left for the quartbacks coach job in Florida, the Cougars hired FAU offensive coordinator Kendal Briles after he led Owls to the #8 total offense in 2017.

The offense would score 45 points in both of its first two games in wins against Rice and against Kevin Sumlin’s Arizona Wildcats, but in week three against Texas Tech on the road, the defense would allow 63 points despite scoring 49.

A sign that the defense would still have issues under defensive coordinator Mark D’onofrio despite having defensive standout and future #9 overall pick Ed Oliver.

Despite the loss, the Cougars racked up four wins in a row to improve to 6-1, but in a win against Navy, a chop block sidelined DL Ed Oliver till the last game of the regular season.

The Cougars without Oliver were able to take down #21 South Florida at home 57-36 that would propel them to #17 in the AP rankings for the first time since 2016.

However, without Oliver in the front lines, the Houston defense was exposed with consecutive losses to SMU and Temple, allowing a combined 106 points on defense, with fans calling for the firing of D’onofrio.

APPLEWHITE’S TENURE TURNS INTO A NATIONAL EMBARRASSMENT

After consecutive losses and out of the rankings completely, the Cougars had a 31-9 lead over Tulane at halftime, but cameras turned to the sidelines as Applewhite and Oliver were exchanging words as one of the coaches held Oliver back so things wouldn’t get out of hand.

How did this all start? Something as simple as a jacket. Yes, you heard that correct, a jacket! It was a cold night in Houston and Oliver borrowed one of his teammate’s jacket.

That’s when Applewhite came over to pull it off allegedly saying only active players can wear them, and that’s when the heated exchange unfolded to a national televised audience.

Why is it a national embarrassment? Because Oliver is the only 5-star recruit the Cougars have had in the 21st century, and it sends a bad message to incoming or offered top recruits to lure them to the university to play football, and it was something silly over a jacket.

That moment overshadowed a pivotal injury in the game later on, as D’Eriq King exited the game with a torn meniscus that ended his season, putting freshman Clayton Tune in as backup quarterback. The Coogs won 48-17, but the damage was done and unfixable.

The Cougars played Memphis in the final game of the regular season, with Oliver returning keeping the Cougars alive for an AAC title berth with a 21-17 lead at halftime, but sat out the second half to keep precaution on his knee he injured against Navy, and Houston was outscored 35-10 in the second half to lose 52-31 to put a stamp of the freefall that was the 2018 season.

Mark D’onofrio was fired, where the Cougars finished a dreadful #119 in the nation in team defense, and #123 passing defense, one of the worst, if not, the worst defense in program history.

The turmoil didn’t end there, as the Cougars were invited to play in the Armed Forces Bowl against Army in Fort Worth.

Houston was humiliated in the first half, down 42-7 at halftime, as it seemed the players were ready for the season to be over, as Applewhite lost the locker room.

The final score was 70-14, the biggest margin of victory in bowl history, as it would add another stain on Applewhite’s tenure.

Applewhite was fired weeks later before the Cougars hired West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen around New Years Eve.

Applewhite finished his tenure with a 15-11 record, and his recruiting rankings didn’t help with a #69 ranking in 2017, and #73 in 2018, while not redshirting players for Houston to have depth for the next couple seasons.

THE CONFUSION THAT HAS BEEN THE HOLGORSEN ERA

It all started with optimism, and in a video posted on Houston Football social media, Holgorsen addressed the fan base with a Red Bull in his hand with the phrase “you want to win some games, well lets go win some games”.

It would be reunion ten years in the making, as Holgorsen was offensive coordinator under Kevin Sumlin with the Cougars from 2008-2009 with his prolific air raid offenses that helped propel quarterback Case Keenum into one of the best in the nation.

A majority of the West Virginia staff followed Holgorsen to Houston, as the program rewarded him a pool of $4.5 million to pay his assistants, which included receivers coach and former Cougar wide receiver Tyron Carrier.

In Holgorsen’s final year at WVU, they were in contention for most part of the season for the Big 12 title, but lost back-to-back games to fall to 8-4, before bailing to Houston.

However, the Cougars finished 4-8 in 2019, which included standout and potential Heisman candidate D’Eriq King redshirting after a heartbreaking loss to Tulane.

This started a trend of many players following later in the year, Mulbah Car only played in four games at running back to keep an extra year of eligibility, even wide receiver Keith Corbin would follow.

After the season, King transferred to Miami, and Corbin went to Jackson State, as the whirlwind for the football program continued.

DWINDLING ATTENDANCE

In 2016, attendance at football games averaged around 38,000, with four sellouts from 2015-16 in games against Memphis, Navy, UConn, and Louisville.

Ever since, the attendance has had a huge drop-off, averaging only 25,518 in attendance in 2019. That’s around a 12,000 drop-off from 2016-19.

The last sell-out was against #5 Louisville in 2016, and the last near capacity game was against Texas Tech in 2017 with a crowd of 36,383.

a sell-out crowd in game vs UConn in 2016
lack of fan support for a game vs Temple in 2018 where the Cougars fell 59-49

THE CRAZINESS OF 2020

With Covid-19 now raging across the world, the Cougars had trouble getting the season started, having their first five weeks of the season cancelled due to other teams having players testing positive for the virus, this included matchups with Rice, North Texas, and Baylor.

It took all the way to October to play their first game against Tulane at home to a limited crowd due to the pandemic.

The offense got off to a slow start, as the Cougars found themselves down 24-7 in the 2nd quarter, but got the ball rolling with two touchdown passes from Clayton Tune to cut the lead down to 24-21 at the half, and held the Green Wave to only seven points in the second half to win 49-31, as the team finally showed consistency on offense with optimism to look forward to the rest of the season.

However, the Cougars had the same issues from year one under Holgorsen, as they failed to show up both halves in a game vs BYU where they led 26-14 in third, and failed to score again as they would fall 43-26.

They would reel in a win vs Navy before getting outmatched by UCF and Cincinnati in consecutive blowout losses.

They would bounce back to 3-3 as they dominated USF 56-21, before the team had Covid problems of their own, and would miss another month of playing football before returning to play Memphis in December.

They would struggle in three quarters down 27-6, coming all the way back to tie the game in the fourth to make it 27-27, as Memphis drove down the field to win the game on a winning field goal to win 30-27 as time expired.

The Cougars were invited to New Mexico Bowl in Frisco, Texas, because of covid restrictions in Albuquerque, and fell to Hawaii 28-14, where the offense showed no signs of life. Houston finished the nightmare that was 2020, 3-5.

Defensive Coordinator Joe Cauthen parted ways after the season and was replaced by Doug Belk, the cornerbacks coach position took three times to fill in one off-season before hiring David Rowe from Central Michigan, and wide receivers coach Tyron Carrier mutually parted ways with the program, the position was not filled.

LAST CHANCE FOR HOLGORSEN TO GET PROGRAM IN RIGHT DIRECTION

Now in year three, Holgorsen has to prove he can get program back on track, his recruiting hasn’t been an upgrade over Applewhite, with rankings of #73 and #72 in the nation in 2019-2020.

The offense needs to be consistent, and the program has not seen the Holgorsen offense fans saw in 2008-09 as offesnive coordinator.

Nor the offensives at WVU where Holgorsen went 61-41 in eight seasons as head coach.

The offense needs consistency from quarterback Clayton Tune, and the defense has had trouble stopping the run, and hopes that new defensive coordinator Doug Belk can turn things around.

It looked good in week 1 to kick off 2021 vs Texas Tech at NRG Stadium, as the Cougars were up 21-7 at the half, but were outscored 31-0 in the second half to lose 38-21.

A sign that nothing has changed going into year three. Tune threw four interceptions, and Holgorsen has failed to make adjustments for the offense to succeed in both halves.

With Big 12 play within reach in 2-3 years, something has to give for the football program, and Holgorsen needs to finish the rest of 2021 strong to keep his job. A big 44-7 win over Rice this past weekend was a good start, but need to step up against better competition.

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