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Houston can’t stop Memphis’ second-half barrage in 42-38 loss

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The Houston Cougars went into halftime with a 17-0 lead over No.25 Memphis Tigers at TDECU Stadium on Thursday night. This was a game where they looked absolutely in control, and the defense was impenetrable.

Not only had they held a top-15 Tigers’ offense completely scoreless in a half for the first time in over five years, but they hadn’t even let them reach the redzone.

Even when Memphis did get close to scoring, the Cougars did everything in their power to shutout their opponent.  

On their second-to-last possession of the half, QB Riley Ferguson found WR Anthony Miller deep in the endzone, only to be broken up by the Cougars’ Isaiah Johnson. On the next play, he was picked off by Patrick Taylor and returned 58 yards to set up the Houston field goal that would put them up 17 points.

In their final possession of the half, Memphis got within field goal range with only one second left. Houston head coach Major Applewhite then froze freshman kicker Riley Patterson an unprecedented three times after conserving all of his timeouts for the half. Patterson made the first two attempts, but he missed the final two greatly- including the one that mattered.

It was that kind of game for the Tigers. And it was the kind of game defensively for the Cougars.

The Third Ward D completely dominated at the line. They got to the quarterback twice and allowed only a combined eight rushing yards. More importantly, the Cougars’ defense forced two turnovers that allowed for 10 of the offense’s 17 points.

Unfortunately for Houston, Memphis came into the game averaging just over 40 points a game, and, sometimes, stats don’t lie.

“When I came in the locker during halftime, there was something I saw in their eyes,” Memphis head coach Mike Norvell said. “There wasn’t a sense of panic. They went about their business as usual.”

After the Cougars failed to score on their first drive of the second half, both teams scored on back-to-back TD drives.

Up 24-7 with 6:11 left in the third quarter, Houston kicked off to one of the most dangerous returners in the nation, Tony Pollard. Pollard returned the kick 93 yards to the house.

The Tigers would never look back.

“It was a multitude of things: from receivers, from Memphis making great plays, from us being out of position and taking the bait on double moves, pass interference penalties that extended the drive, and there was also a special teams touchdown that was huge as well,” Applewhite said about the second-half defensive efforts. “A lot of the deep shots they were taking the in the first half weren’t connecting, and we made one play on it in the end zone.”

Memphis scored on six of their seven second-half possessions, averaging 21 points a quarter.

Ferguson had 178 yards, no touchdowns and was sacked twice in the first half. By the end of the game, he amassed 471 passing yards and found Sean Dykes for his lone passing TD. He did not allow a pick or sack in the second half.

Memphis had little success gaining yards on the ground and combined for only 30 yards in the game. But great positioning by Ferguson allowed RB Patrick Taylor to pound the ball into to the endzone 4 times.

The Houston defense experienced shortcomings in the second half, but the offense had success moving the ball.

On the ground, the team combined for a total of 239 rushing yards. Duke Catalon had a career-high three rushing touchdowns on 65 yards. Dillon Birden also had a career-high 106 rushing yards to go along with one touchdown.

The offense’s fatal flaw was that they allowed themselves to be stopped one too many times.

Poor finish by the Cougars

Up 38-35 with less than 3 minutes left in the game, Houston faced 4th-and-1 in no man’s land at their own 41. They decided to punt.

“We punted the ball on 4th down because we didn’t run the ball well on 2nd and 3rd down,” Applewhite said. “I was not excited about putting an offense who had a bunch of points at midfield, so we wanted to punt the ball and make them drive as long as they have to go to score.”

This decision would ultimately come back to haunt them. Memphis drove the ball 80 yards up the field and capped off the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to Dykes to put the Tigers up 42-38.

Down for the first time in the game with 1:28 on the clock, QB Kyle Postma (29-40, 315 YDs, 1 TD, 1 INT) had the arduous task of driving the Cougars 68 yards down the field.

On the second play of the drive, Postma ran 16 yards to the Tigers’ 49-yard line and was brought down by T.J. Carter; or appeared to be down. Officials had not ruled Postma down before he routinely released the ball, and it was confirmed to be a fumble forced by Carter and recovered by Memphis’ Jonathan Cook at their own 47.

“Both teams played hard; it just comes down to finishing and securing the ball,” Postma said. “We lacked that at the end.”

 After forcing the only punt of the second half for the Tigers, the Cougars began another final-drive attempt at their own 29 with 42 seconds left in the game. On the third play of the drive, Postma was picked off by Carter, his second turnover forced, to put the Tigers in victory formation.

“I was very disappointed that we lost,” Applewhite said. “I thought they played hard.”

The Tigers improve to 6-1 (3-1 American) on the season while the Cougars slip down to 4-3 (2-2).

Things won’t get easier any easier for Houston after suffering back-to-back losses. They have to go into South Florida on Saturday and face arguably their toughest opponent this season in the No.17 Bulls.

Coach Applewhite can think of only one way to bounce back:

“You’re a competitor, there’s only one way to respond.”

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