2006 Houston Cougars Football Season Recap
CUSA Fans Houston Correspondent Patrick Mahoney reviews the 2006 football season for the Houston Cougars.
The Houston Cougar football team capped its best season in over a decade by winning a Conference USA championship in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Robertson Stadium. The raucous atmosphere saw the culmination of Kevin Kolb's four years at the helm as he finished his Houston career in the Liberty Bowl with his 49 th consecutive start at quarterback. 2006 was another banner year for the Cougar offense, as they turned out 462 points while racking up more than 6,200 yards in fourteen games.
After a promising first half of the season that included wins over Oklahoma State and crosstown-rival Rice and a narrow loss at Miami, the Cougars followed with an embarrassing loss to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and were on the short end of a squeaker at Southern Miss. This midseason three-game slide did not bode well for the Cougars, but they ran the table through the conference championship over Southern Miss on December 1 st. Credit for this rejuvenation was largely due to the emergence of surprise standout running back Anthony Alridge. Alridge led the team with 959 rushing yards and his trustworthy ground game gave new legs to the slumping offensive unit. The Cougars' 6'2", 245-pound fullback Jackie Battle wasn't far behind, though, as he rushed for 943 yards and 15 touchdowns while complementing the speed of Alridge with a power rushing presence.
The last game of the slide was a 31-27 heartbreaker in Hattiesburg at the hands of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
This three-game losing streak lit a fire under Kolb and Co. and they ran through the rest of the season like men possessed, outscoring opponents 138-88. Tulsa, UTEP, Central Florida, SMU, and Memphis found themselves facing a Houston team that began clicking on all cylinders. Memphis did take the Cougars down to the wire, but a Ben Bell field goal clinched the overtime win. With home field advantage in the CUSA championship game on the line Bell set the stage for what would be one of the high points in Cougar football history.
The Houston Cougars have had difficulty bringing students out to home games for a long time. Many a sportswriter has exultantly snickered over the empty seats in the Astrodome and Robertson Stadium over the years. Since resuming play on campus in 1998, the Cougars have rarely topped the 15,000 mark in single-game home attendance, but the CUSA championship game broke all previous stadium records, bringing in a standing room only crowd of 31,818. The game capped nearly two weeks of speculation in the media and hand wringing in Cougar Nation over whether or not the students, alums, and local citizens would come out to support the team. Ticket sales were certainly brisk, but up to the morning of gameday no one was quite sure how the crowd would look. As it turned out, the fears were unfounded- a better crowd could not have been dreamed of.
Long-time (and long-suffering) fans could be excused for rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the vociferous "Albino- and Scarlet-clad" multitude which braved one of the coldest Gulf Coast nights in recent memory. ESPN's cameras were there to capture the scene. Southern Miss jumped out to a first half 17-13 lead, but the game turned ugly as the seconds wound down to the end of the first half and Jackie Battle was stopped cold at the Southern Miss one-yard line. A number of Golden Eagle linemen refused to allow Battle up off the turf, with at least one who had been pulled off by other Houston players returning to the pile and laying down on top of the Cougars' running back. As the final seconds of the half ticked away, the many nervous UH fans howled for some kind, any kind, of penalty against the terribly unsportsmanlike actions of the Southern Miss players. The referees refused the pleas of the players, crowd, and coaches and were booed off the field as a few fans even donated a few beers from high up in the stands in an effort to help the refs quench their thirst while headed to the locker room.
All this ugliness left a taste for blood in the mouths of the Cougar faithful and the booing and heckling against everything wearing gold and black or black and white continued throughout the game. Fortunately, the touchdown that the Cougars were denied turned out to be of little consequence, as the offense left the Eagles in the dust and the defense played lights out the rest of the night. The 21-3 second half and the deafening thunder of over 31,000 hungry fans set the stage for a jubilant rushing of the field after the final gun. As the players danced with the fans and the Conference USA trophy was passed around, it was clear a new day was dawning on this languishing program.
In only four seasons, head coach Art Briles had led the Cougars to the ten-win mark for the first time since 1991. All that was left was the Liberty Bowl in Memphis against the South Carolina Gamecocks of the Southeastern Conference.
That game was close throughout but in the end the Gamecocks, a team that had played National Champion Florida to within a point at Florida's homefield, outlasted the Coogs. The loss did little to diminish the euphoria surrounding the season, however.
Though Kolb is graduating and the defense mostly underperformed this season, hopes are high for next season amid a brewing quarterback controversy and rumors of facility upgrades and expansion. The giant new video board and fresh paint added a breath of fresh life to Robertson this year but were merely sidenotes to a memorable season. The future is promising under Briles and Athletic Director Dave Maggard. Briles recently refused to talk with Minnesota concerning their head coaching position. As attention turns to basketball and baseball, Cougar fans are left with happy memories of an excellent 2006 season and high hopes for the future of Houston football.