Case closed on Heisman
Exposed: Kevin Sumlin coaches desperate, Houston Cougars get demolished by UCLA
Did Kevin Sumlin ever really believe?
The coach who led the University of Houston back into the Top 25, the leader who enthused Robertson Stadium with jolts of electricity, sure didn't act like he ever truly thought his Cougars could matchup head-to-head with an average Bowl Championship Series (BCS) team. Sumlin coached scared under the bright lights of the Rose Bowl Saturday night and it showed long before Case Keenum, the now former Heisman Trophy candidate, hobbled to the sideline for the second straight week.
More shocking than the 31-13 final score in UCLA's favor was the way in which Sumlin approached the game.
The 23rd-ranked Cougars actually came into the Bruins' home as four-point favorites. They were the hot 2-0 team, the sudden darlings of the pollsters for their stylish blowouts of overmatched teams. UCLA couldn't have been more down and out, off to an 0-2 stagger start with people in Los Angeles all but printing 0-4 (the Bruins play No. 6 Texas next week) into the books.
Yet, Sumlin coached like Houston was a 20-point underdog.
He tried an onside pooch kick right after the Cougars took a 3-0 lead, just when the Bruins' doubts about being able to score against anyone (Stanford shut them out last week) had to be starting to creep back in. That gave UCLA an easy route to its first touchdown and there was soon no turning back on the rout.
But Sumlin wasn't done there. Houston tried a reverse on 3-and-11, trailing 7-3, taking the ball out of the hands of one of the best college quarterbacks in the country when it needed a play most. Throughout the first half, the Cougars conceded that they couldn't protect Keenum, employing a host of draw plays, all but screaming out, "Uncle!"
Houston turned to a trick play — a 48-yard receiver pass from Tyron Carrier — to get its first score. That was a great call, but it also reinforced the message in the Southern California air: Houston couldn't play the Bruins straight up and no one knew it more than their coaches.
They turned out to be right — Houston was largely manhandled, especially on the offensive line — but it was such an un-Sumlin-like approach. The Cougars coach is usually full of steady bravado, indignant over anyone doubting the team he'd coached to a 21-9 record coming into the game. The power of his belief has carried many a player along and is essential at a UH program that is often discounted.
But that guy was nowhere to be seen in the Rose Bowl. Maybe, Sumlin, an excellent coach, saw the truth staring at him in the film, even as Houston racked up 68 points against a second-tier FCS team and won by 30 against an average Conference USA team missing its best player. Maybe, the silly charade he got into all week over the concussion-recovering Keenum's status for the UCLA game (like Case was ever not starting) unnerved him.
Maybe, Sumlin just had an off night. Even the best coaches have them. Bill Belichick is not Bill Belichick every game either.
Whatever the reason, this was the worst coaching performance of Sumlin's otherwise nearly-flawless time in Houston. It was more than a tad desperate, tentative, timid and wobbly.
If you didn't know better, you would have thought that Sumlin was the one coming back from a concussion, not Keenum.
While Keenum never had the time to put up any trophy numbers, you'll seldom see an athlete display more guts. If you're not even more of a fan of Keenum after this 11-for-19, 87-measly-yards, two-interception game than you were before, than you don't know anything about football.
For even as his pocket collapsed around him (or more often, barely even had time to form in the first place), Keenum kept running around, exposing his battered head to harm's way, doing anything possible to make a play. The play that knocked Keenum out of the game — the one that may end up costing him most of his senior season — typified his relentless, can't-stop-caring way.
When Keenum threw an interception at the UCLA four, one play after putting the Cougars in position to get back into the game with his legs, he just couldn't turn and run off the field like his coaches plead for him to do. Instead, Keenum desperately tried to stop Bruins defensive back Akeem Ayers in the open field and ended up apparently damaging his right knee, crumpling to the grass without getting touched while trying to cut with Ayers.
Sumlin was no doubt mad at his quarterback for refusing to make the smart retreat to the Houston sideline. But he should be even more disappointed in himself for the approach he took into the game.
Teams that are coached scared get slaughtered. Houston isn't anything without Kevin Sumlin's belief.