Houston moves the football better than most teams, and its season finale on Saturday was no exception. The Cougars racked up 585 total yards and 29 first downs, besting their 2010 averages in both categories.
They didn’t score nearly as often as usual, though, because an opportunistic Texas Tech defense wouldn’t allow it.
The Red Raiders epitomized the bend-but-don’t-break mentality on a chilly November night at Jones AT&T Stadium, making enough timely plays to limit the Cougars to 20 points — about half of their season average and their second-lowest total of the year. The result was a 35-20 victory for Tech, which
avenged last year’s loss in Houston and kept the Cougars from becoming bowl eligible.
“That’s a lot of yards,” Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said, “but when you hold them to 20 points and get a couple big turnovers, it really turns the game around.”
Tech’s defense, despite allowing both of Houston’s touchdowns on fourth-down plays and failing to record a sack for the first time all season, had its best game of the year in third-down situations and recorded its first three interceptions of the month. The Red Raiders (7-5) held the Cougars (5-7), who entered the game tied for sixth nationally in third-down conversion percentage, to a season-worst 1-of-15 showing on those plays.
“We had third-and-short and we had trouble running it,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. “When we got into some longer-yardage situations and they blitzed us, we got hit a couple times.
“When you go on the road and you’re not able to convert on third down, this is the result.”
The Red Raiders’ defense was especially strong in its own territory.
With Tech leading 21-10 late in the first half, Houston marched inside the Red Raider 25-yard line on back-to-back possessions but got only three points to show for it. A blitzing Tech defense forced UH quarterback David Piland into a fourth-down incompletion from the 1 on the first possession, then forced the Cougars to settle for a 19-yard field goal by Matt Hogan as the second quarter expired.
Tech turned the trick twice more in the second half. The Cougars had a first down at the 25 but had to punt after a holding penalty and a fumbled snap out of the shotgun, and D.J. Johnson picked off a pass near the goal line late in the game.
Bront Bird and Cody Davis also intercepted a constantly pressured Piland, a true freshman who has thrown 11 picks in his last four games, and the Red Raiders broke up 11 passes.
“Our kids just rose to the occasion,” Tech defensive coordinator James Willis said. “They played with attitude, with passion, and they gained confidence. Any time you have those components working together, you’re going to have success.”
The defense’s effort made things fairly easy on the Tech offense, which gained 488 yards and 22 first downs. Taylor Potts threw for 373 yards and four touchdowns, and fellow senior Detron Lewis had his best game of the year with 11 catches for 135 yards and two TDs.
The performance also made for a sweet ending to an often-sour regular season. Tech entered the game ranked 114th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense — and was third-to-last against the pass — so corralling an explosive Cougar offense was gratifying to the players.
“I think on defense we’ve started to be consistent and believe in the system,” said senior defensive back LaRon Moore, who registered two of the pass breakups. “I believe that is what we struggled with during the season, that some of the guys didn’t really believe. But now they’re seeing the outcome of what you do if you take everything step by step and do what the coaches tell you to do.
“Now they’re learning and they’re seeing it, and that’s the reason why we’re playing better on defense.”