Former QB recruit Hicks torches Cougars
Stay in Top 25 to end as offense, defense fall apart on the road
DALLAS — Once a University of Houston commitment, Ben Hicks changed his mind late in the recruiting process when the Cougars made a coaching change at the end of the 2014 season.
Hired as the offensive coordinator a few weeks later, Major Applewhite had about 48 hours to make a sales pitch to Hicks. By then, the quarterback was set to move into his dorm room and “already had SMU sheets and everything.”
Hicks put the Cougars to bed early Saturday night.
Hicks threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns as the Mustangs stunned Houston, 45-31, at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
“It’s a long bus ride home,” Applewhite, now UH’s head coach, said after the Cougars lost for the third time in the last four trips to Dallas. “We have to look at ourselves in the mirror.”
Just like that, the Cougars’ stay in the national rankings — they were No. 17 in the Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls — will be short-lived. Once considered the runaway favorite in the American Athletic Conference West Division, UH (7-2, 4-1) now has a onegame lead over SMU (4-5, 3-2) and Tulane entering the final three weeks of the regular season. Oliver’s injury looms large
Before any talk of winning the West, however, Saturday’s puzzling, if not bizarre, performance has opened the door to several questions:
How seriously injured is Ed Oliver’s knee? After being cleared Saturday morning, the All-American defensive tackle “did not feel comfortable” with his bruised right knee during pregame warmups, according to a school spokesman, and was a late scratch.
“The last thing you want to do is put one of your players out there in a position they could reinjure themselves,” Applewhite said. “We’ll continue to monitor him day-to-day. We knew it was going to be a touch-and-go situation going into the game.”
Do wholesale changes need to be made on defense after the Cougars surrendered at least 500 yards for the fourth time this season?
Why didn’t the Cougars make the necessary adjustments when the running game was not working? UH finished with a seasonlow 365 yards, more than 200 yards fewer than its nation-leading average entering the game. The point total marked the first time UH failed to reach 40 points this season.
“They played a Tampa 2 (defense),” quarterback D’Eriq King said. “They came out with a totally different defense than we’ve seen (them play) the last seven weeks.”
By dropping an extra defender into coverage, the Mustangs basically invited the Cougars to run the ball. UH had only eight pass attempts in the first half and 14 through three quarters. UH finished with 47 rushes for 190 yards.
“They are basically saying let your offensive line and running backs beat us,” Applewhite said. “We’ve got to be able to run the football in those situations. There were some times we did, but again not consistently enough.”
Even Mother Nature conspired against the Cougars, forcing a 90minute lightning delay that halted the game with 3:24 left and the Mustangs on the doorstep to delivering one final blow.
By the end of the game, the Cougars were without their top two defensive linemen, as Jerard Carter joined Oliver on the sideline with an apparent foot injury. Oliver’s replacement, Aymiel Fleming, also suffered a foot injury. The backfield was also banged up with Mulbah Car leaving with a foot injury in the first half and Terence Williams was also hobbled at the end.
All of that was the recipe for a dismal performance as the Cougars fell behind 21 points, 38-17, late in the third quarter before mounting a late comeback. The Mustangs put the finishing touches when Ka’Mon Freeman scored on a 8-yard run, sending SMU to its third win over UH in the last four meetings in Dallas, a stretch that includes UH coaches Tony Levine, Tom Herman and now Applewhite.
The few times King, the national offensive player of the week whose named had been mentioned in Heisman Trophy polls, did attempt a pass he was uncharacteristically off-the-mark.
“Disappointed,” King said. “I know I didn’t play well enough for my team to win. At the end of the day I didn’t get the job done.”
Behind UH’s high-octane offense, King entered the game with 39 total touchdowns. He was 11of-22 for 175 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for another score.
“The day he had last week was one for the record books,” Applewhite said of King’s seven-touchdown effort against South Florida. “That’s not a typical performance week-in and week-out. He’s played at such a high level. We still have the same amount of confidence. He’s still the same leader. He’s still the same competitive guy. But when you’re not having a 400-yard passing, 130-yard rushing game, you have to have those around you play well. And we didn’t play well enough around him.”
Meanwhile, Hicks was 28-of-43 for 318 yards and four touchdowns. Reggie Roberson and James Proche were targeted 28 times, combining for 18 catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns. Comeback bid fizzles
Behind Hicks, the Mustangs led 31-14 at halftime. The only sign of life for UH’s offense in the first half came on a 50-yard touchdown pass from King to Marquez Stevenson, his team-leading ninth of the season. On the ensuing possession, SMU’s Xavier Jones lost the ball, which was picked up and returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Gleson Sprewell to pull the Cougars within 17-14 with 12 minutes left in the second quarter.
That was close as UH would get. SMU pushed the lead back to double digits with a pair of touchdowns, including a 13-play, 91-yard march — capped by a 6-yard run by Freeman — and a 1-yard touchdown grab by Proche with six seconds left. The last touchdown was aided by a backbreaking 44-yard run — on fourth-and-1 — by Freeman.
SMU ran 52 plays for nearly 400 yards in the first half.
“When you give somebody 52 swings they are going to make some plays,” Applewhite said.
To begin the second half, UH forced SMU to four three-and-out series on its first five possessions. With 1:39 left in the third quarter, Hicks and Roberson hooked up for a 59-yard score.
UH flirted with a comeback as Dalton Witherspoon converted a 27-yard field goal and Keith Corbin caught a 1-yard touchdown to trim the lead to 38-24. King added a 3yard touchdown run with 9:34 remaining.
It was too big a hole for the Cougars to dig out of.
“At the end of the night, what I told them in the locker room, I didn’t get you ready as a head coach, Applewhite said. “We didn’t get you ready as a staff. And we have to look at ourselves in the mirror as players. Everything is still ahead of us. We’re still the same football team we were the last five weeks when we won games. But we have to refocus.”
SMU tight end Ryan Becker, right, beats UH defensive back Deontay Anderson for a touchdown reception in the first half.