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What Houston’s loss to Fresno State means for the offseason

Will Major Applewhite be around next year? Stop it, of course he will.

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Fresno State vs Houston Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think I need to rehash what happened Sunday night, because we all saw what happened. What started out as a promising end to the season turned into a frustrating and disappointing finish. Houston finished it’s 2017 season with a 33-27 loss to Fresno State. While this loss wasn’t nearly as bad as last year’s embarrassment to San Diego State, it might have been just as frustrating. We now have a year under Major Applewhite’s watch, but is he on the way out? We recap the game, and talk about the offseason for Houston.

The Game

It looked like the offense would have no issues against Fresno State’s defense early. D’Eriq King looked comfortable, and led the Cougars down the field on their second drive for an easy first score. The defense was also doing their part. Fresno State’s offense produced just five total yards on its first four drives, and avoiding Ed Oliver seemed to be limiting their production. Oliver’s dominance also carried over to the Houston offense, where he score the Cougars first touchdown.

The Bulldogs finally cracked the Houston defense, and it was all deadlocked at 20 heading into the fourth quarter thanks to a Jeremy Winchester blocked field goal that was returned by Alexander Myers for the tying score. The fourth quarter belonged to their opponent, though, and a late interception returned for a touchdown for the Bulldogs would ultimately be the difference.

The Reaction

Frustrating and disappointing seemed to be the general summary of the season. This was a team that had so much potential despite the offseason departures of previous coaches, but that potential never seemed to be realized. Same with this game.

It appeared that the offense started off great, but stalled when it had opportunities to help the defense (a missed field goal also hurt). Even with Major Applewhite calling the plays, the offense got repetitive early and often. If one type of play call worked, it seemed like that’s what Applewhite went to on the next three consecutive plays. Screen passes continued to be overused with the rushing attack being nonexistent yet again (just 2.4 yards per carry).

With the offense struggling to put up points, the defense took most of the pressure to keep the Cougars in the game. Once again, that only works for so long. The defensive secondary could use a little work before next year, but we also saw potential at multiple positions. The defense will also get Oliver back next year, and some youthful players around him should be better.

The biggest issue is up front offensively. If I’m Applewhite, my primary focus this offseason is setting a new mindset in the trenches. Too many times the offense was limited to just passing the ball because they needed to abandon the run game. It didn’t seem like there was any nastiness on the line this year, and too many missed blocks plagued the rushing attack. Players like Duke Catalon, Mulbah Car, and Dillon Birden were forced to be primarily pass catchers because there was nowhere to run. That needs to change in 2018. Houston has plenty of talent returning next year, but the mentality needs to be adjusted. The skill position talent and potential will be wasted if they can’t run the ball, and Applewhite will be without a job if they struggle again next season. Assuming he’s not let go this year.

Applewhite’s Future

After hiring Applewhite, Houston president Renu Khator said that she would “fire coaches at 8 and 4” which obviously was brought back up after the Hawai’i Bowl loss. Houston went 7-5 this year, and puts Khator to the test to see if she was serious or not.

So let’s end the speculation: Applewhite’s job isn’t in jeopardy this offseason. But then again, I’m not in charge. People say things all the time, and the internet has a field day with those quotes. That doesn’t mean those things will actually happen, and that will be the case with Houston’s coach. Even if he was unfairly judged because of his predecessor.

I was never a fan of people expecting Applewhite to produce the same results as Tom Herman in his first year. That simply was never going to happen. Seven wins wasn’t what I anticipated, but neither was double digits. Saying that he’s expected to win, and putting a ridiculous buyout in his contract wasn’t the way to start this relationship, but I think he did well considering the circumstances.

Now that the emotions from Herman’s exit are well in the past, we can move forward with the Applewhite era. His recruiting class so far this offseason is solid, and he can address a few things in the offseason to get the Cougars to the top of the AAC West. His to-do list also includes finding an offensive coordinator, and hopefully one that bring an attitude change up front, and features some more creativity. This team has the talent to win, and the coaching staff just needs to put them in position to do so.

Expectations should continue to be high, but putting a coach on a pseudo one year contract isn’t the way to do it. Winning the conference should be a realistic goal for next year, and Applewhite just needs to check off his to-do list for next year.