Houston 2021 Season in Review: Tune, defense lead Cougars to new heights

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2021 record: 12-2 (+9 games from 2020)

Texas Power Poll ranking: 3 of 12

THE GOOD

Houston rode an 11-game winning streak to a spot in the AAC championship game against Cincinnati. The Cougars went 8-0 in conference play including an overtime win over East Carolina and a seven-point win over SMU thanks to a 100-yard kickoff return by Marcus Jones with 17 seconds remaining in the game. Houston averaged 35.9 points per game in 2021. The defense allowed just 20.4 with the Cougars holding a plus-eight turnover margin thanks to losing only two fumbles on the entire season. 

Quarterback Clayton Tune took a large step forward during his junior campaign. He passed for 3,544 yards and 30 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Tune threw 24 touchdowns to four interceptions during the 11-game winning streak. His favorite target was Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. Dell caught 90 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 94.9 yards receiving per game. Tight end Christian Trahan was second on the team with 37 catches. Jake Herslow caught five touchdown passes and played a big part in Houston’s bowl win over Auburn. 

The offense was also improved thanks to freshman running back Alton McCaskill. The Conroe Oak Ridge product set a school record for touchdowns scored by a true freshman with 18. Sixteen of those were rushing touchdowns. McCaskill ran for 961 yards on 189 carries. He caught 21 passes out of the backfield. Ta’Zhawn Henry, a Texas Tech transfer, was second on the team with 524 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Offensive lineman Patrick Paul, only a redshirt freshman, was named to the all-conference team. 

Houston wasn’t just an offensive team. The defense averaged four sacks a game. Opponents averaged 3.4 yards a rush on Houston, and the Cougars only allowed 13 rushing touchdowns in 14 contests. Jones, who returned two punts and two kicks for touchdowns as a returner, also led the team with five interceptions. The group was also excellent in the red zone with opponents only scoring 15 touchdowns in 34 trips. Conversely, Houston’s offense scored on 49 of the 55 trips to the red zone. 

Donavan Mutin led the team with 77 tackles. The junior also forced three fumbles, recovered one, posted 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Derek Parish recorded 56 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks. D’Anthony Jones (7) and Logan Hall (6.5) combined for 13.5 sacks. There were 15 Cougars who recorded at least one sack. As a team, Houston registered 100 tackles for loss. 

THE BAD

The weak link for Houston was the offensive line. Houston only averaged 3.9 yards a rush despite the success of McCaskill and Henry because the Cougars allowed 38 sacks. Tune, who can run, averaged just 1.5 yards a rush because of those sacks. He lost 265 yards thanks to the sacks. It was evident during the loss to Cincinnati in the AAC championship game. The Bearcats recorded eight sacks and held McCaskill to 39 yards on 13 carries. Houston averaged 1.8 yards a rush on 47 attempts in the defeat. 

THE UGLY

Week 1 of the season was a humbling experience for Houston that ended up becoming the catalyst for an 11-game winning streak. The Cougars led Texas Tech 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 21-7 at halftime. Texas Tech scored the next 31 points. Tune threw four of his 10 interceptions during that loss. The defense allowed 376 yards of total offense, including 145 on the ground. The Red Raiders averaged 5.2 yards a rush. 

TEAM GRADES 

Quarterback: A-

Running back: B+

Wide receiver/tight end: A-

Offensive line: C+

Defensive line: A

Linebacker: A-

Cornerback: A

Safety: A-

BIGGEST OFFSEASON QUESTION

Who is wide receiver No. 2? 

Houston returns the triplets of Tune, McCaskill, and Dell. The Cougars also return Trahan at tight end. Herslow was a senior. So, that means Houston won’t return a receiver other than Dell that caught at least 30 passes in 2021. The most productive receiver outside of Dell and Herslow in 2021 was junior Jeremy Singleton. He caught 28 passes for 485 yards and five touchdowns. He did lead the team with an average of 17 yards per catch, but he’ll need to be more consistent. Dell will draw double teams. Trahan will occupy the linebackers and safeties. Singleton must make opponents pay on the opposite side of the field, or Houston needs to find more weapons who can. 

WAY TOO EARLY 2022 OUTLOOK

Houston should be considered the favorite to win the AAC in 2022. Cincinnati is losing most of its star players from the team that won the conference and reached the College Football Playoffs. Houston returns most of its key players. Tune is a junior. McCaskill a freshman. Dell a sophomore. Defensive leaders such as Mutin, Parish, Hall, and Gervarrius Owens are all expected to return. Anything less than 10 wins and a return trip to the AAC championship game should feel like a disappointment considering the momentum built in 2021. 

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