By Mark Mayorga
Daily Cougar Staff
Four complete quarters of dominating football and overcoming turnovers and mistakes enabled the Cougars to gain their first victory of the year, defeating the Memphis Tigers 35-14 before a crowd of 13,140 at Robertson Stadium Saturday.
This marks the Cougars' first victory since they defeated the Louisville Cardinals 36-22 a year ago.
"It was obvious that we outplayed Memphis and we were much more physically capable than they were," head coach Kim Helton said. "It's easy to criticize and analyze the game, but the bottom line is that these kids needed this win.
"Last year at this time, the team was in disarray because of injuries. This win came at a good time, with our back against the wall. It was phenomenal that we were able to overcome the penalties," he said.
After the Cougars' defense held the Tigers in check, allowing only two first downs in the second and third quarters, the Cougars gave Memphis a heavy dose of their running attack. Houston marched 60 yards on 10 plays, capped off by Ketric Sanford's second rushing touchdown of the game to put the game out of reach, 35-14.
Back-to-back rushes by Sanford for 14 yards moved the ball past mid-field. Jason McKinley then handed the ball off to Mike Green, who rumbled for 20 more yards. Sanford then took over, as he carried the ball on the next five plays for 27 yards into the end zone.
"I was just trying to look for something, trying to be patient, and I saw a hole and just shot through it," Sanford said.
Sanford put up career-high numbers, running for 177 yards with two rushing touchdowns and earning his second career-passing touchdown.
Although the Cougars were able to gain their first victory in their last eight games, the start of the first quarter foreshadowed an entirely different outcome.
Freshman running back Leif Penn fielded the opening kickoff and took off down the sideline before fumbling the ball away at the Houston 18.
Memphis' Demorrio Shank recovered the fumble and set up the Tigers deep in Houston territory.
After the Cougars were hit with an offsides penalty, the Tiger offense only needed 23 seconds to score, going up 7-0 as UM quarterback Stephen Galbraith found Billy Kendall from 13 yards out.
With their character being tested early, the Cougars responded with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that brought them even with the Tigers.
McKinley connected with Jerrian James for 9 yards and later with Orlando Iglesias for 9 more yards and a first down. Sanford then carried the ball the next three plays for 30 yards down to the Memphis 33-yard line.
With the drive in the midst of stalling, Memphis' cornerback Mike McKenzie drew a pass interference call and, most importantly, a Cougar first down.
After two rushes by Green for 8 yards, Sanford followed his blocking and weaved through the Tiger defense for an 11-yard touchdown.
On the Cougars' ensuing drive, the offense was destined for a sure touchdown, but Orlando Iglesias fumbled a pass and Demorrio Shank recorded his second fumble recovery of the night, this time at the Memphis 8-yard line.
With the Tigers pinned deep in their own territory, a missed assignment by the Houston secondary allowed Galbraith to find a wide-open Damien Dodson for a 92-yard touchdown pass. The 92-yard gain marked the second-longest pass in Tiger history, the longest being in 1974 with a 94-yard strike, also against the Cougars.
After an earlier penalty that cost the Cougars a field goal, McKinley got Houston on the board again with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Iglesias, knotting the score at 14 heading into halftime.
While he started the season slowly, McKinley went 19 for 33 with 203 yards, a touchdown and an interception. With each week that goes by, McKinley has gotten better, showing his increasing ability to audible and handle pressure.
After allowing two quick scores in under a minute, the Cougar defense regrouped and totally shut down any kind of angle the Tigers offense threw at it.
The defense recorded a season-high seven sacks. Louis Hampton, Wayne Rogers and Jeremy Maxon collected five sacks while reaping havoc with the Tiger version rotating quarterbacks.
"We had a little lapse in the first series of the game, but after that, we told ourselves to not let that get to us and play like we wanted to play," Hampton said.
As the third quarter was under way, Sanford dashed through the defensive front for 16 yards on two carries.
Then the Cougars used their first trick play of the season, as Sanford threw a halfback pass that found its way into the hands of Jason deGroot for a 24-yard touchdown. The score put the Coogs up for good, 21-14.
"When I threw it, I kind of wanted to bring it back because it wasn't the prettiest pass, but I'm glad Jason caught it," Sanford said.
With the Tigers on the ropes, the Cougars delivered the knockout punch as Emile White stepped in front of a Galbraith pass and returned it 22 yards for the Cougars' fourth touchdown of the evening. The score came only 51 seconds after the deGroot TD.
"My eyes got so big," White said. "I couldn't believe he threw it, but I don't think he saw me.
"I wanted to make sure I caught the ball, because there is no other feeling like getting an interception and scoring a touchdown," he said.
The win has the Cougars starting their conference season 1-0. The Cougars will be in action this Saturday afternoon as they face Army at Robertson Stadium. Game time is set for 2:30 p.m.