Houston head coach Tom Herman had one point he wanted to make clear during his weekly news conference Monday after his team lost to Navy, 46-40, over the weekend.
“We’re not deep enough, talented enough to play a C-level game when another team is playing their A-level game and win,” Herman said. “We’re just not.”
The Cougars struggled in all three phases during Saturday’s loss in Annapolis, Md., snapping an eight-game winning streak, and fell from No. 6 to No. 13 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll released Monday.
“I think there’s a lot of lessons to be taken from that game,” Herman said.
Chief among them, Houston turned the ball over three times in the game, which the Midshipmen converted into 17 points, including a 34-yard pick-six by linebacker Josiah Powell during the third quarter.
It was just the third time in 20 games under Herman that the Cougars lost the turnover battle.
Houston had four turnovers in its only other defeat with Herman at the helm, a 20-17 loss at UConn last November. In both losses, the Cougars failed to force a single turnover, a key component in the team’s plan to win each week.
“I don’t know if that was a lesson we learned on Saturday, but it was certainly one that was reinforced,” Herman said.
Also part of Houston’s plan to win is to play great defense.
Entering Saturday’s game against Navy, the Cougars had certainly done that. They led the nation in rush defense – allowing just 42 rushing yards per game – and had held each of their previous seven opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.
Despite what Herman said was a really good week of practice leading up to the game, Houston’s defense was unable to take its preparation out onto the field as the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense produced 306 rushing yards, including quarterback Will Worth’s game-high 115 yards on the ground.
“We just didn’t execute the plan,” Cougars linebacker D’Juan Hines said. “Missed tackles were a big part of it, but we just didn’t execute like we should have.”
Houston continued to struggle in the kick return game, giving up an 85-yard return to Dishan Romine on the ensuing kickoff following the Cougars’ first score of the game. Navy scored on the next play.
And late in the game, a high snap over the head of 6-7 punter Dane Roy went out the back of the end zone for a safety, costing Houston two additional points.
The Cougars also had an extra point attempt blocked in the game.
Because of the turnovers and special teams woes, Houston was on the wrong end of the score despite its defense actually allowing fewer points than it did in last year’s 52-31 victory over the Mids.
“Are we capable of beating Florida State and Oklahoma and Louisville on any given Saturday? Absolutely,” Herman said. “But, we’re also not talented enough, not deep enough to go on the road and play a C game against a very formidable opponent such as Navy, or really anybody that’s left on our schedule, and come out with a win.”
Herman also hoped his players learned they can’t press on either side of ball, offense or defense, when one side is struggling, and need to, instead, remain calm.
“We may be in a 50-50 shootout. We may be in a 0-0 defensive struggle. We may be in a 20-20 game where one side is playing better than the other,” Herman said. “But, we’ve got to maintain our level of championship execution regardless of the scoreboard or situation, and not get too uptight.”
Despite the setback, Herman was encouraged by an energetic practice Sunday.
And even though the loss likely cost the Cougars a shot at the College Football Playoff, Herman made sure his team was aware of the other accomplishments still within its reach, including three more wins to match the program record for wins over a two-year period (21) and, for the seniors, two more victories to equal the record for most wins over a four-year period (36).
Houston could also get a shot to defend its American Athletic Conference title if the Midshipmen were to stumble down the stretch.
“We’ll hope that we get an opportunity at redemption in a conference championship game, but until then, we have to take care of our business,” Herman said. “The first order of that business is to beat Tulsa.”