NCF Nation: Matt Nicholson

Lunchtime Links

November, 10, 2010
11/10/10
12:30
PM ET
More midweek MAC football coming up. Tonight: Miami (Ohio) at Bowling Green. I will take Miami, 24-20.

Now on to some links:

Boise State's defensive line has been key this season.

Gary Patterson is in demand, and that's good for TCU.

Utah linebacker J.J. Williams finally makes his return from a lingering foot injury.

Nevada wide receiver Rishard Matthews is hitting his stride.

There is a chance Southern Miss wide receiver DeAndre Brown could play against UCF.

Is running the football the best option for UAB against East Carolina?

Houston linebacker Matt Nicholson suffered another knee injury, ending his season and career.

The WAC could add Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Denver as early as today.

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun deflected talk about the Colorado opening.

FAU is not proud of its poor offensive production.

Injuries have hit Middle Tennessee -- both starting cornerbacks could be out Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

HOUSTON -- Kevin Sumlin expects to have at least six true freshmen in his defensive two-deep and he couldn't be more excited about his depth.

Even though the Cougars lost star defensive end Phillip Hunt and a few other key players, the second-year coach believes this year's defense will be more well-rounded than the one from his first season.

"I know it sounds crazy, but we have more depth than we had last year," Sumlin said. "Even though they're freshmen, we didn't have enough bodies particularly in our offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker. But we have them now. Even though they're freshmen, we have a lot.

"We don't have a Phillip Hunt, but we have a lot of guys who could get there."

Hunt was the best player on a defense that was one of the worst in the country last season. The Cougars, like several of their Conference USA West brethren, fell victim to the high-powered offenses in the conference, and ultimately yielded 413 yards and 31 points per game.

"All the offenses on our side of the conference are explosive, everybody can score," senior linebacker Matt Nicholson said. "At the end of the day, we've got to be able to stop the other teams in our conference. We're not playing against teams that are 3 yards and a cloud of dust. We're playing against teams that throw the ball. So, we've got to have guys that can run around and do all that stuff."

"We just have to have 11 guys playing with their hair on fire."

While playing so many freshmen -- and even some junior college players that will be in the mix -- might not seem ideal, both Sumlin and Nicholson think it could be an advantage. The players are new. They have no preconceived notions about what they can and can't do against certain offenses in the league. They're going to play with reckless abandon because they don't know any better.

And practicing against quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season, has helped.

"Our offense does the hurry-hurry and they've got guys coming out of the woodwork and they're running plays back-to-back-to-back," Nicholson said. "We're kind of out there sucking wind sometimes, but we're also getting in really good shape and we're getting prepared because we know that everyone else does that. That's how it's going to be. We get used to it now, so we don't have to in the game."

Of the six Conference USA West defenses only two finished higher than 100th nationally in total defense. Even though Houston ranked No. 100, it was relatively good in the conference at seventh.

Nicholson said the defense does have a bit of a chip on its shoulder especially with all the praise that's been heaped on the offense. But with key players gone and several fresh faces in the mix, he hopes opponents are sleeping on the Cougars defense this year.

"I feel like we're going to kind of sneak up on people," Nicholson said. "Nobody's really talking about us, and I hope that people, after they play us, will not be [talking] so much about our offense, but about how they couldn't get their offense going against us."

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

HOUSTON -- The Heisman Trophy and the Lombardi Award sit on top of a cabinet against a wall near the door of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin's office.

Neither is in a glass case. There aren't any special lights shining on them. The trophies don't need any adornments, they speak for themselves and tell stories of Houston's football success over the years.

"That trophy was downstairs, but I brought it up here because it's important for anyone who walks into this office to see it," Sumlin said. "It reminds me. I've coached many places with a lot of tradition, even where I went to school, that didn't have one of those. And there have been a bunch of good players in that deal, a bunch of second-place finishers in that deal, but a Lombardi and a Heisman, that's big time."

Sumlin has no allusions that he'll turn the one Heisman into a set any time soon -- though junior quarterback Case Keenum is getting some quiet buzz -- but as the Cougars head into a 2009 season ripe with high expectations, it's a reminder that setting the bar high is nothing new for Houston football.

Nearly every preseason magazine and poll is picking Houston to win Conference USA -- the first title for the Cougars since 2006 -- and for Keenum to be the league's best offensive player.

"This season will test us and we'll see how mature of a team this is," Sumlin said. "It will be real interesting to see how we handle things."

Sumlin and his Cougars have faced several trials since he took over last year. After the second game of the season, the Cougars had to evacuate to Dallas because of a hurricane. The Cougars lived in a hotel, practiced at the Dallas Cowboys' various facilities with little equipment and lifted weights at a local high school. Because of the change in venue, the team had to play Air Force at 10 a.m., the earliest any of Sumlin's team have ever played, and the Cougars lost by a field goal.

"We're riding the bus to the stadium at 8 a.m. and I'm thinking, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Sumlin said. "And then we had to go back to the hotel after the game. Everybody, trainers, doctors, everything, were waiting to see when we could get home. Every morning I had to brief everyone -- there were like 100-some people -- and tell them that the power's still not back on or the water isn't right and we were going to have to stay another night. It was tough."

When the Cougars returned home to Houston for a night, flew to Colorado State the next morning and lost a three-point heartbreaker on the final play of the game, the frustration of the displacement and the 1-3 start began to boil over.

"When we left Fort Collins, you could just feel the frustration," Sumlin said. "Just living there and all that had happened and then losing the way we lost, I think everyone was just angry."

And in that anger, Houston rallied.

The next week, with No. 23 East Carolina on the horizon, Sumlin said he felt a change in his team. They were back in Houston, back on their regular regimen and there was a different sense of purpose.

The Cougars went to East Carolina and came away with a 41-24 win that ultimately saved the season.

"We had our backs against the wall," senior linebacker Matt Nicholson said. "We were going up there and it was kind of just time for us to do something about it. We really came together. It was really the defense. That was probably the best game that we played all year. We just came out and had something that game. We all had it. I'd love for us to have that every week."

While Houston couldn't replicate the play against East Carolina every week, it did win six of its final eight regular-season games. The Cougars missed winning the Conference USA West by a game, but it gave the team confidence to finish the season with a win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

And that confidence has Houston heading into 2009 with a positive outlook.

"Going in with new coaches, a new system and everything, there's a lot of uncertainties," Keenum said of last season. "Halfway through the season, after a couple games, we knew we were capable of being very good. Looking back on the season, you look at all the numbers and stuff, there weren't as many wins as we wanted. We felt like we left a lot of offense on the field and we stopped ourselves a bunch. ... Seeing the guys we have coming back and the new guys we have out there, it's pretty cool to think of what's to come. If we left that much out last year and we're that much better now, it's cool to see what's going to happen."

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