It turned out the only obstacle that nearly upended Houston on Saturday was one of its own players. As Cougars cornerback Brandon Wilson returned a missed field goal from the very back of the end zone midway through the third quarter, eluding Oklahoma tackle attempts and setting his sights on the goal line 109-plus yards away, a teammate fell in his path.
He could have tripped. He could have ducked out of bounds. Yet Wilson mashed the Y-button, hurdled his fellow Cougar, and continued his unharried sprint for a touchdown. The lead reached two scores, and the rout was on, with no. 15 Houston ultimately upsetting no. 3 Oklahoma by a 33–23 margin that was closer than the game itself.
Preseason darling Houston may have successfully avoided the first impediment of its own making, but needing to do so will be a theme for Tom Herman’s squad the rest of the season. If the Group of Five favorites really hope to crash into the College Football Playoff, the Cougars will have to continue to avoid getting in their own way.
At this point, having just seen Houston wallop a playoff team from last season, it’s easy for the mind to wander to questions about the playoff: Should Houston go 13–0, would the committee spurn an undefeated team from a lesser conference in favor of a one-loss Power Five team? What if that team is a Big 12 outfit — or Ohio State, which plays the Sooners in Week 3 — whose one loss came against Oklahoma? Does Houston have to root for Oklahoma now?
We haven’t reached Labor Day yet, so those questions, however natural, are premature. What’s not premature, though, is examining just how the Cougars came to beat Oklahoma in the first place; that accomplishment shouldn’t be lost as the masses fast-forward the conversation to a hypothetical December decision.
Even more than Herman’s electric attack, the team used a stingy defense to control the game. The balance was reminiscent of recent iterations of successful mid-majors: Boise State’s undefeated 2009 squad held Oregon to just eight points — that was the LeGarrette Blount sucker-punch game — and Gary Patterson’s pre-Big 12 TCU teams surrounded Andy Dalton with a stout defensive group.
Its front seven stocked with a rotation of athletes, Houston didn’t allow Oklahoma a yard of space around the trenches. All-Big 12 first-teamer Samaje Perine rushed for just 31 yards on six carries and had to leave the game briefly after a hard hit; subtract fellow tailback Joe Mixon’s 32-yarder early in the game, and Oklahoma averaged just 1.5 yards per rush. By the second half, Oklahoma basically abandoned its run game, and quarterback Baker Mayfield’s stat line suffered without the threat of a run game to scare Houston’s pass rush. The Sooners scored just one touchdown after the half, in garbage time.
In its victory over no. 9 Florida State in last year’s Peach Bowl, Houston posted a similar performance, holding star running back Dalvin Cook to 33 rushing yards on 18 attempts and a long of just 9 yards. Overall, FSU tallied less than a single yard per carry. And that was before Houston added Ed Oliver, the first five-star recruit ever to join a Group of Five school. Oliver looked explosive at the line against Oklahoma — he was powerful enough to burst through the Sooners’ blocking and nimble enough to chase down Mayfield as the Heisman candidate increasingly resorted to aimless scrambles against Houston’s flood of rushers.
Outside of a few blown coverages from Oklahoma, the Cougars offense was less impressive. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. overshot receiver Isaiah Johnson streaking toward the end zone late in the first half, and he sailed a few other deep throws throughout the game. He wasn’t necessarily efficient, either — he completed just 57.5 percent of his throws and totaled 1 rushing yard — but some whimsical third-down conversions kept the Cougars’ offense moving steadily down the field.
The offensive fireworks will return. Houston’s athletes are too good, its scheme too creative, for them not to, and Oklahoma will almost assuredly provide the stiffest test for Herman’s crew all year. Last season, the Cougars’ only hiccups came when Ward was injured, and even on an off day, Ward and crew still produced six scoring drives (not counting the kick-six).
But if the offense were to lapse or Ward were to miss time again, the defense has shown it can dominate Heisman-caliber competition, let alone American Athletic Conference foes. Houston still plays at Cincinnati in an always-dangerous Thursday night game, at Navy in October, and at home against Louisville a week before Thanksgiving. None of those games will be easy, but Houston will be favored in each and only has to avoid beating itself to run the table.
If that happens, the playoff questions will pose a real dilemma for the sport instead of a hypothetical. Until then, we can all keep enjoying the Houston hype.