Instant observations: Houston faces Auburn in defensive-minded Birmingham Bowl

Photo by Dave Campbell's Texas Football

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The Houston Cougars pulled a mild upset with a 17-13 win over Auburn in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl on Tuesday afternoon. Houston scored the first and the last touchdown of the game, which was enough in a defensive battle against the Tigers of the SEC. The win moved the American Athletic Conference to 3-0 during the bowl season. The SEC is now 0-3. The state of Texas is now 1-3 in bowl games with SMU and Texas A&M missing out on its opportunity due to COVID-19 cancellations. 

INSTANT OBSERVATIONS

Third Ward Defense, Doug Belk lead Houston: Dana Holgorsen led football teams are viewed as offense-dominated squads. That wasn’t the case for Houston in 2021, and that remained true in the bowl game. Houston’s defense was as responsible, if not more, for the 11-win regular season. Belk’s crew averaged four sacks a game during the regular season. Marcus Jones, who missed the bowl game, led a secondary that recorded 14 interceptions in 11 games. 

The defense kept Houston in the game after the first quarter. The Cougars failed to score a single point in the second or third quarter. The defense bent a few times but avoided a break until Auburn scored its first touchdown in the third quarter. Houston held Auburn to six points in the Tigers’ first three trips into the red zone. The defense held Auburn to zero points following two second-half interceptions. 

Auburn was 4 of 14 on third down. The Tigers only managed 117 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per play. The Cougars recorded a sack and seven tackles for loss. Safeties Deontay Anderson and Gervarrius Owens led the way with 17 combined tackles. David Anenih recorded the team’s only sack. Linebacker Donavan Mutin was second on the team with eight tackles. 

Houston must find more weapons outside: Houston should enter 2022 with its own version of triplets. Quarterback Clayton Tune took a huge step forward in his third years as a starter. Running back Alton McCaskill led the country in touchdowns scored by a true freshman. Wide receiver Nathaniel Dell went over 1,200 yards receiving for the season. The offensive line must improve, but so does the weaponry on the outside for the Cougars. Dell is the only proven playmaker to return at wide receiver in 2022. 

Dell caught 10 passes for 150 yards. Houston passed for 283 yards as a team. The only other receiver to catch more than two passes was Jake Herslow, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, and he’s a grad transfer senior who arrived from Old Dominion. Of the 26 completions by Tune in the win, 24 went to Dell, Herslow, a running back, or a tight end. The only other receiver to catch passes was the two for 17 yards by Jeremy Singleton.

The Cougars are amongst the AAC favorites in 2022: Houston was win short of claiming an AAC title in 2021. Houston lost its opener against Texas Tech before pulling off 11 consecutive wins to earn a spot in the AAC championship game. Cincinnati was on another level, and the Bearcats can prove that to the college football world in the College Football Playoffs. But Houston should be considered one of the favorites to claim the title in 2022. The three-headed offensive monster of Tune, McCaskill, and Dell should be back. The offensive line should only improve. The defense was one of the best units in the country, and a lot of those players are expected to return next season. Houston is building momentum towards its eventual move to the Big 12 and claiming a conference title in the process of that move isn’t out of the question. 

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