Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Houston 35, Memphis 34

I'm still not sure how the Cougars managed to win this one:
Perhaps it was playing before a record crowd crammed inside of TDECU Stadium. Maybe it was playing a 8-1 Memphis football team that was the best opponent the University of Houston had faced the entire season. It could be as simple as sideline guests JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins contaminating the Cougars with the crapiness of the Houston Texans.

No matter the reason, for the first 29 minutes of the Saturday night’s game, the Cougars weren't playing like an undefeated college football team. Down 20-0, having gained just 24 yards on offense with only four first downs for the game, the Cougars appeared dead in the water. Then quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. was knocked out of the game, and under backup Kyle Postma, the offense sprang to life, scoring on a 30-yard pass from Postma to Linell Bonner just before the half.

Still the Cougars were down 34-14 with 14 minutes remaining in the game and hopes of the perfect season, the conference title, and a New Year’s Bowl were rapidly falling away. Of the 282 teams that have trailed by at least 20 points in the fourth quarter, none have come back to the win, and UH was positioned to become number 283. But as the clock reached zero, after the 48-yard field goal attempt of Memphis’ Jake Elliott went wide right, the Cougars were the somewhat miraculous 35-34 victors to go 10-0 on the season. (See our slideshow of photos from the game here.)
The Good: Kyle Postma. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 236, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for 49 yards and another TD. Demarcus Ayers led all receivers with 13 receptions for 127 yards. While the Memphis defense managed to hold the Cougar ground attack to less than 100 yards, they still managed to give up four rushing TDs. Houston's defense had a rough day, but still forced two turnovers and, at games' end, keep Memphis at the very edge of Elliot's field goal range, resulting in the game-saving miss.

The Bad: Greg Ward Jr had perhaps his worst start at QB (fortunately, his ankle injury isn't serious). Memphis gained 278 yards through the air - Tiger QB Paxton Lynch was 20-for-32 passing with two touchdowns and an interception - and 212 yards on the ground. They manhandled Houston's defensive line and converted 12 of 19 third downs. Houston receivers dropped several catchable passes.

The Ugly: There's really no other way to describe the first half. The Tigers had Ward rattled and the running game contained; Houston's first six possessions all ended in punts. In the second half, Memphis defender Reggis Ball purposely tried to injure Ayers by twisting his leg after a play was whistled dead. This thug move should have gotten him ejected, but the referees didn't even see it. In fact, the officiating of this game was blatantly one-sided, with many calls (or non-calls) benefitting the Tigers.

The Beautiful: 42,159 was the largest on-campus crowd in the history of University of Houston football. The fans were loud, and the overwhelming majority stayed until the end even though things looked bleak on more than one occasion. I would like to think that this game represents a turning point in terms of this city's support of Cougar football.

What it means:
It was probably a game the Cougars should have lost. It was definitely a game that, in recent years past, the Cougars would have lost. But Herman’s got this team believing that it can do anything. And it’s a team that’s dealt with lots of adversity this season — the offensive line has been hit by injury after injury, Postma started the season as a back-up wide receiver, key contributors on defense were missing this game because of injury, the receiver and running back cops are decimated by injury, and yet the Cougars found a way to pull out the win, go to 10-0 on the season. And yet all that matters for Herman is winning the conference title.
The conference title is still a few steps away, but it became much more realistic after last Saturday's miraculous finish. Next up for the Coogs is their first-ever trip to Storrs, Connecticut to face the Huskies. Trap game, anyone?

Rockets fire Kevin McHale

Can't say I was expecting this:
Eleven games into a 4-7 Houston Rockets season that has sped past concerning and is careening toward disastrous, Alexander pulled the trigger and fired head coach Kevin McHale, as first reported by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski. Assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff will be the interim head coach when the team takes on Portland tonight at Toyota Center.

The move comes as a surprise, insomuch as nobody could have foreseen this coming when the season began. However, it was evident from opening night that this team had major issues. They lost their first three games of the season, each by 20 points, before going on a four game winning streak. However, that string of wins was followed by four more losses, many of the same embarrassing variety as the first three losses of the season.

A 111-95 loss to Boston at home Monday night, a game the Rockets led midway through the third quarter, was the final straw. The Rockets' brass had seen enough. McHale had clearly lost his players and the confidence of the franchise, and he was done.

The team had plenty of excuses for its poor start — injuries, the integration of Ty Lawson, the close association with the Kardashians (ok, I made up that last one) — but it all boils down to this team's treatment of defense as optional instead of integral, and energy levels that fluctuate worse than those of a narcoleptic. In short, this team just doesn't appear to give a shit. At the very least, they didn't give a shit about McHale or they wouldn't have been habitually losing to lottery teams by double digits.
The performance of the Rockets this season has certainly been disappointing, especially coming off their success at the end of last season. Nevertheless, it's a bit unexpected to see the same guy who coached this team to that success last season get the axe so early this season.

With that said: Les Alexander has owned the Rockets long enough to know that Houston is a fair-weather, front-runner sports town, and he probably understood that his franchise was hemorrhaging the interest and goodwill it created among local sports fans with its abysmal performance to start the 2015-16 season. Realizing that dwindling fan support equals dwindling revenues, Alexander decided to make a change at the top. Whether it makes a difference on the court remains to be seen - that discussion is for people who know more about basketball than I do - but at least Alexander can show local fans that he's being proactive, thereby holding their interest in his product.

No word as to when the Rockets will announce McHale's permanent replacements, but there are plenty of potential candidates.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Houston 33, Cincinnati 30

The Cougars faced their toughest test of the year in the rain last Saturday, but came away with a close victory after the Cougar defense forced four straight incompletions on Cincinnati's last possession.

The Good: The Cougar defense accounted for 9 of Houston's 33 points. Brandon Wilson intercepted Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown. Kiel was also sacked in the endzone for a safety. UH special teams recovered a muffed Cincinnati punt, which would later lead to a score. The Cougar offense employed a clock-chewing, grind-it-out approach in the rain, amassing 266 yards on 66 carries and maintaining possession for 37 and a half minutes. Keeping the ball out of the hands of the Bearcat offense was a good idea, because...

The Bad: Kiel absolutely torched the Houston secondary for 523 passing yards and four touchdowns. Until the final series of the game, the Cougar defense simply had no answer for him and his receivers. Greg Ward threw two interceptions. Running back Ryan Jackson left the game with a broken collarbone and is out for the rest of the season. Cornerback William Jackson III suffered a knee injury and is probably going to miss the next two games.

The Ugly: The Bearcats amassed 11 penalties, three of which were unsportsmanlike conduct flags - including one on coach Tommy Tuberville - after a single play. The Cincinnati meltdown led to an easy Houston score. Another Houston touchdown, however, was called back on a highly-questionable offensive pass interference penalty.

What it Means: The Cougars remain undefeated and, at 9-0, have surpassed last season's win total. Next up is a home game against a ranked Memphis team whose own aspirations for an undefeated season came to an end last weekend against Navy. The Tigers will be angry, and if Memphis QB Paxton Lynch is anywhere as close as effective against the Houston secondary as Kiel was, the Cougars could be in for a long afternoon.

The Houston Press's John Royal (who appears to have borrowed the "good, bad, ugly" format from me!) has more.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Houston 34, Vanderbilt 0

The Cougars put together their most dominating performance of the season on a rainy Halloween night, shutting out Vanderbilt and remaining undefeated.

The Good: The Cougar defense was obviously the story of the evening. They forced a fumble and three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by William Jackson III, and held the Commodores to a paltry 185 yards of total offense. On the offensive side of the ball, Quarterback Greg Ward Jr completed 15 of 23 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for 33 yards and a touchdown. Kenneth Farrow led all rushers with 82 yards and a touchdown.

The Bad: Ward fumbled the ball twice in the rain, and was held below his per-game rushing average for the year. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, it didn't matter.

The Ugly: There really wasn't anything ugly about this game, other than the weather. And while I know that there's no point in complaining about attendance, I would have liked to have seen a crowd larger than 29,565 at this game. Yes, it was raining, parts of the city had flooded earlier in the day, and a lot of people had Halloween activities to attend. But I was really expecting an undefeated, ranked team playing an SEC opponent to draw a bit better. Coach Tom Herman is not impressed, either.

What it Means: This was Houston's first shutout of an SEC school since 1969 (when they blanked Mississippi State 74-0). The Coogs beat the Commodores, who won against Missouri last week, by 17 points more than Georgia, 23 more than Ole Miss and 25 more than South Carolina. Where's our SEC invite?

The 8-0 Cougars host Cincinnati on Saturday for homecoming. The Bearcats will be the best team, record-wise, that the Coogs have faced this season.

Hopefully the crowd will be more to my - and coach Herman's - liking.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Houston 59, Central Florida 10

Houston started out this game very sluggish, and Central Florida actually led 10-7 with a little over two minutes left in the first half. But then the Coogs woke up, scoring 17 points in the final 2:05 of the half en route to a 59-10 rout of the Golden Knights.

The Good: Houston got the "never won at Brighthouse Networks Stadium" monkey off their back in a big way, accumulating 600 yards of total offense. The Golden Knights had no answer for the Cougar ground game, which accumulated 366 yards and five touchdowns on 48 carries. UH's defense held Central Florida's hapless offense to a paltry 280 yards and forced four turnovers, including an 85-yard fumble return by Brandon Wilson that was Houston's only score for the first 27 minutes of the game.

The Bad: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Cougars, who were flagged seven times for 87 yards. That being said, "bad" can only describe the 0-8 Central Florida Knights. They just looked awful.

The Ugly: Would describe the Cougars throughout most of the first half. Following Wilson's fumble return for a touchdown, they punted four times, went three-and-out twice, and amassed a whopping total of 49 yards offense. After UCF scored to go ahead, it looked like a major upset was possible. The Cougars are going to see their undefeated record come to an end if they have that poor of a start against Vanderbilt, Cincinnati or Memphis.

What it Means: This loss was the end of the line for Central Florida head coach George O'Leary, who retired following the game. The Cougars are 7-0, are moving up in the polls, and will face Vanderbilt at TDECU Stadium on Halloween night.

SciGuy leaves the Chronicle

Eric Berger, the Chronicle's longtime science and weather writer, is moving on:
Hey everyone, as you may know by now I am leaving the Chronicle to write about space for Ars Technica. 
It has been a wonderful 17 years at the Chronicle. I have written this blog for more than a decade, and for the most part it has been a labor of love. I have literally written thousands of posts and approved 100,000s of comments. 
But all good things must come to an end. To keep track of my future endeavors be sure to follow me on Facebook or Twitter. 
I will be writing more about space and weather than ever.
For a moment I was worried that Berger's departure meant the end of his days blogging about the weather as well. His (now dormant) weather blog at the Chronicle was the best source for local meteorological information and was a mandatory morning read for me, and I wasn't looking forward to the desperate search for a new accurate and hype-free source of local weather information. But upon checking his Facebook page, I discovered this:

Space City Weather

Update your links and favorites accordingly.

Berger's departure appears, at least from my vantage point, to be another nail in the Chronicle's coffin.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Houston 42, Tulane 7

Last Friday the Cougars made their first trip to Tulane's new Yulman Stadium in New Orleans... and came back with a win. 

The Good: Quarterback Greg Ward Jr was his usual electric self, completing 17 of 25 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 77 yards and three scores. Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers also put on a show, gaining 283 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, one of which was a punt return. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, smothered the Green Wave offense, forcing them to punt 11 times and holding Tulane of a paltry 262 yards of total offense.

The Bad: Tulane scored a touchdown on a fake punt to notch their only score of the night and keep from being shut out. As good as the defense played, they forced no Tulane turnovers. Ward threw his first interception since the Louisville game.

The Ugly: The game was very sloppy: Houston committed 10 penalties for 99 yards, including a penalty on special teams that kept DeMarcus Ayers from scoring a second touchdown on a punt return. Tulane, for their part, had 12 penalties for 133 yards. Houston's makeshift, injury-plagued offensive line is a real concern. They were manhandled by Tulane's defensive line, and things are so bad that UH is holding tryouts for walk-on linemen.

What it Means: Houston is now 6-0 and bowl-eligible. It's hard to believe that the season is half-over already!

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Orlando to play Central Florida. The Golden Knights are 0-7 on the season, but the Cougars should not take them lightly, as they are 1-5 all-time against UCF and have never won a game in UCF's stadium.

Friday, October 16, 2015

International flights from Hobby are now a reality

As of yesterday:
Passengers on the first flight out of Hobby Airport's new international concourse were greeted bright and early Thursday morning by a line of cheering Southwest Airlines' employees, whooping and hollering as travelers entered the concourse.

A mariachi band serenaded them as they waited at the gate. And before boarding their 8 a.m. flight for Cancún, fliers got a handshake from Mayor Annise Parker and Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly.

Paul and Pamela Curry, from the Katy area, were counting on this excitement. They were going to travel this weekend anyway, and Pamela saw the opportunity to be on Southwest's first flight.

"I figured Southwest being Southwest, they'd make an event out of it," she said. "And they have."
Paul chimed in, saying he enjoyed walking into the concourse to applause. 

Their ultimate destination is Akumal, south of Cancún, where they can go snorkeling in a turtle sanctuary.

Thursday marks the first time Hobby has had full-fledged international service since 1969.
"Sun is coming up, and it really is the dawn of a new era here for the city of Houston," Kelly said during a news conference.
Southwest spent $146 million, $10 million less than expected, on the 280,000-square-foot complex with five gates, a larger ticketing area and a Customs inspection station. Four of the five gates are preferentially leased by Southwest, and they're "swing gates" that can accommodate both domestic and international travelers. Seven more gates can be added later.
In order for Southwest to implement international service from Hobby, they had to convince City Council to ignore a temper tantrum from United Airlines as well as convince Mexican and US aviation authorities to waive treaty-specified limitations on flights between the two countries.

In addition to Cancún, Southwest now flies from Hobby to Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo in Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rice; Belize City, Belize; and seasonally to Aruba. Flights to Montego Bay, Jamaica and Liberia, Costa Rica, begin in November. As of now Southwest has not announced any other international services out of Hobby, and to my knowledge no other airlines, foreign or domestic, have indicated that they will themselves to Hobby's new international facilities.

One airline that will never be using Hobby's international gates under any circumstance, however, is US Airways. Today was their final flight as an airline:
It's the end of the line for US Airways.

The airline that started as a tiny airmail service 76 years ago is retiring as part of a 2013 merger with American Airlines. The final US Airways flight is scheduled to take off from Philadelphia on Friday.

It's a small part of a huge trend that's affecting how more than 660 million domestic air travelers fly every year.

Fourteen years ago, the United States had 10 major domestic airlines. Now, the competing major carriers have merged into four: American, Delta, Southwest and United.

Together, they control about 87% of the domestic market, MIT's International Center for Air Transportation said.
I previously covered this merger here, here and here. Does its completion mark the end of the consolidation trend in the domestic airline industry, at least for now?
Are more megamergers coming? Will four be cut to three? Unlikely, says Winston. "Mergers are very risky propositions. They don't necessarily work well." Corporate cultures can clash. Merging complicated computer reservation and scheduling networks can be bumpy, at best. Just ask United Airlines, which was still struggling to smooth its operations five years after its megamerger with Continental Airlines, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Appropriately, US Airways' last run will be Flight 1939, the year it all began. The flight will depart Friday from Philadelphia, heading to Charlotte and then Phoenix and San Francisco. From there, it will take off again and fly east, ending its celebratory journey on Saturday back in Philly, in the state where its history began.
CNN has an infographic of airline consolidation showing that, since the century began, we've gone to 10 major airlines to just four; not shown is JetBlue, who would round out the top five.

Houston, we have another post-season chokejob

The Astros had a great season, performing much better than most people expected. I don't think anybody would have believed you if you had said back when the season begun that the team that struggled not to lose 100 games last season would notch an 86-76 record, make the playoffs, and beat the almighty Yankees in the Wild Card game. Winning baseball has returned to Houston after a very long absence, and the future is looking bright for the young team.

With all that said: I will reluctantly have to add the Astros' series against Kansas City to my list of top post-season chokejobs in Houston sports history. This is simply due to the meltdown in the eighth inning of game 4. The Astros were leading by four runs, at home, and were six outs from winning the series when Carlos Correa committed an error, the relief pitching fell apart, and the Royals were allowed to rally with a five-run inning. The Royals tacked on another two runs in the ninth to win the game and force a gave five in Kansas City. That is, by definition, a chokejob.

The Astros had one more opportunity to win the series last night, but the bullpen's meltdown gave the Royals all the momentum playing in their own ballpark, and the better-than-expected season came to a disappointing end.

As successful as the 2015 season was for the Astros, there is room for improvement. A better road record is a start: their 33-48 record in road games was the worst in the American League. And yeah, they gotta learn to keep their focus in the postseason.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

North Texas fires Dan McCarney after inexcusable loss

Yeah... When you pay an FCS school $425k to be an easy homecoming win, and they instead come to your stadium and utterly humiliate you, it's time for a change:
Dan McCarney was fired as North Texas' head coach Saturday night following a devastating loss to Portland State in the Mean Green's homecoming game.

The Vikings hammered UNT 66-7, the largest margin of defeat for a Football Bowl Subdivision team in a game against a team from the Football Championship Subdivision ever.

The loss dropped UNT to 0-5 for the first time since the 2008 season and continued a rapid downhill slide following the Mean Green's Heart of Dallas Bowl win following the 2013 season.

UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal confirmed the school's decision to part ways with McCarney in a hastily called press conference that took the place of the Mean Green's regular postgame interview session.

"This football team has continued to struggle more and more each week in the last three or four weeks," Villarreal said. "It started at the beginning of the season. We are not in position where we are competitive really in any phase of the game."
After their nine-win season and bowl victory over UNLV a couple of seasons ago, I truly expected to see North Texas continue to improve. They had an excellent new facility in Apogee Stadium, Conference USA was a step up from the Sun Belt, they were located in the talent-rich DFW Metroplex and Dan McCarney had had some success at Iowa State. Instead of improving, the program has plummeted. The Mean Green went 4-8 last season, are winless halfway through this season, and as of right now  might very well be the worst FBS program in the nation; Sagarin ranks the Mean Green 195th out of 253 Divsion I football teams and dead last in the FBS.

Granted, Portland State is a good FCS team, having beaten the Pac-12's Washington State earlier in the year. But a 66-7 drubbing? Villareal did what he had to do to placate what's left of the UNT fanbase and to begin the search for somebody to right the ship.

McCarney finishes with a 22-32 record over four-and-a-half seasons at North Texas. Offensive coordinatior Dan Canales will reprise his role as interim head coach (he last led the team in 2010, after Todd Dodge was fired) for the rest of the 2015 season.