For the last six years, Kevin Sumlin has been able to look back on fond memories of his time at the University of Houston, where he enjoyed his most successful tenure as a college football coach.
But there’s nothing fond about his latest encounter with the Houston program. Memories have been replaced by nightmares.
Yesterday morning, the new head coach at the University of Arizona took on his old school and left Texas with a 45-18 spanking that threw a wet blanket over his much-anticipated homecoming. Arizona’s season-opening 28-23 loss to BYU was a tough way to debut in a new job. But the Houston loss really took the wind out of the sails of Wildcat Nation.
The Cats didn’t put points on the board until there were just three minutes and 16 seconds left to play in the third quarter, when Lucas Havrisik nailed a 49-yard field goal.
Unfortunately for Arizona fans, the Cougars had already piled up 38 points of their own. They had wasted no time in taking early command of the game, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions to start the game, while keeping a lid on Arizona’s offense throughout the first half.
Arizona was able to add another seven points when freshman running back Darrius Smith punched through the Houston line from one yard out with 11 seconds left to play in the period. Ironically, Smith is from Houston and was recruited out of Dawson High School in Pearland, TX.
But it was much too little, way too late. Each team scored again in the fourth as Houston wrapped up the win to start its season 2-0.
There were many reasons, of course, why this loss was hard to take for Sumlin, including the dubious distinction of becoming the first Arizona coach in 37 years to start a season with consecutive losses.
But somewhere toward the top of that list has to be the fact that Sumlin wanted to show his old fan base that he’s still got it. He took the Cougars to three bowl appearances in his four years directing that program. Sumlin’s teams also played in two Conference USA championship games and he left the program after a 12-1 season to take the head-coaching job at Texas A&M.
The team he led from the desert back to Houston yesterday didn’t give Sumlin the win he needed, but the final score wasn’t really indicative of the way Arizona played. The Wildcats ran up 531 yards of total offense, posted three more first downs than the Cougs, and their offense had the ball almost 11 minutes longer than Houston.
Their problem was getting the ball across the goal line. A good case in point came in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats had a first-and-goal at the Houston one-yard line – but came up dry. They went for broke twice in the game on fourth downs and, again, couldn’t convert.
Both teams relied heavily on the passing game. Arizona’s Kahlil Tate completed 24 of his 45 pass attempts for 341 yards, but had two interceptions, while the Houston QB, D’Eriq King, threw for 246 yards and four touchdowns. Tate picked up just seven yards rushing on seven attempts and his only score carrying the ball came with a little more than 11 minutes to play when he crashed over the line on a two-yard run. King accounted for just 27 of his team’s total 297 rushing yards.
Tate’s unique ability as a dual-threat quarterback was the ticket that enabled Arizona to avoid a losing season last year under Rich Rodriguez, who inserted Tate into the starting role in the fifth game following an injury to the starting QB. In Tate’s first game under center he set a new FBS rushing record for a quarterback with 327 yards against Colorado. He had four straight games like that and soon became a part of the Heisman talk.
That’s why it’s so difficult for Wildcat fans to understand why Sumlin isn’t using the junior in the same way this year. In the two games so far this season, Tate has posted a total of 16 rushing yards.
Maybe fans will see the ‘old Tate’ emerge next Saturday when Arizona hosts Southern Utah.
They need a little something to cheer about right now.
Photo: Arizona Athletics)