Even in a loss, first-year Houston football coach Chris Edwards saw his team take a major step toward becoming a winning program.
The Tigers finally played with the intensity Edwards has been looking for since he arrived in town. They forced four turnovers, including Ty Scheets’ long fumble return for a touchdown, and were mere seconds away from ending the program’s long losing streak against a team Houston hasn’t beaten in more than two decades.
The Tigers were ultimately dealt a painstaking loss – their 16th in a row – when Yousef Ibrahim snuck into the end zone on a 9-yard pass with 11 seconds left, giving Salem a 15-12 victory Friday night. But Edwards was hardly disappointed.
“I’ve been waiting for this since the first camp,” Edwards said. “They saw what competing for four quarters can get you. That’s what it takes – every kid playing with that effort.”
Houston (0-5, 0-2 SCA) picked an improbable week to play its best game in two seasons.
Facing a Salem program the Tigers haven’t defeated since 1980, Houston took a 12-6 third-quarter lead when quarterback David Weybright avoided a sack and found tight end David Foster all alone in the end zone. The advantage was still four points, thanks to a goal-line stand minutes earlier that stuffed Salem on the 1-yard line, when Houston punted the ball away with 1 minute, 36 seconds to go.
But in an agonizing run that has seen Houston fail to win a single game since advancing to the 2005 state semifinals, Salem covered 54 yards on seven plays without a timeout to deal the Tigers a hard-to-swallow loss.
“It’s part of the process of getting this thing turned around,” Edwards said. “There are still some things to fix, but none of it matters if they don’t play with that type of intensity.”
Houston was out-gained by 195 total yards and averaged just 2.6 yards per play. But the Tigers stayed alive by recovering four of Salem’s seven fumbles while turning the ball over once.
The final Salem fumble – on the Houston 26 with 3:16 to go – could have given the Tigers a much-needed victory. They gained eight yards on three plays to milk the clock, and the offense lined up to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Tigers’ 30-yard line. But an equipment penalty on center Aaron Scheets, who failed to put his mouthpiece in between plays, forced Houston to punt.
Still, the Tigers had 54 yards to protect in the final two minutes.
“We had a chance to win the game on offense and didn’t get it done,” Edwards said. “We had a chance to stop them defensively and didn’t get it done.”
Salem (1-4, 1-2 SCA) shut down Houston’s strong air attack with a Cover 2 man defense that took away the Tigers’ vertical passing game and held leading receiver Ty Scheets without a catch. All but two of Weybright’s 10 completions for a season-low 58 yards were short dumps to tailback Justin Schmidt and fullback Brad Pounds.
To no surprise, Salem continually pounded away with its option running game. Quarterback Cody Wofford had 117 rushing yards, and Max Ball added 101 for Salem, which ran the ball on 53 of its 61 plays. Wofford completed just three passes, but two were critical connections on the game-winning drive.
Trailing 6-0 after Wofford’s 4-yard quarterback keeper on Salem’s second possession of the game, the Tigers pulled even when Scheets made a spectacular defensive play. Crashing down the line of scrimmage from the right side, Scheets burst into the backfield, ribbed a handoff intended for Bell out of Wofford’s hands and rumbled 72 yards for a score.
Edwards said it was perfect execution of defending the option run by Scheets, who scored the Tigers’ first points of the opening quarter this season.
“A tackle for a loss, forced fumble, fumble recovery and touchdown – for a defensive player, that’s as good as it gets,” Edwards said.
The game remained tied until midway through the third quarter, when Weybright made a nifty escape of a sack for an impromptu score. On fourth-and-9 from the 24, Weybright appeared to be going down in the backfield as Wofford converged. But Houston’s junior quarterback stayed on his feet, scrambled toward the sideline and hit Foster, who had broken off his route and was all alone at the goal line, for a 12-6 lead.
The Tigers’ defense protected the lead early in the fourth quarter by stuffing Wofford on fourth-and-goal from the 2. But Houston coughed up two points when a direct snap to Schmidt was mishandled and bounced out of the back of the end zone.
“It’s a way to get more downhill and quicker hits,” Edwards said. “We can get the ball in (Schmidt’s) hands and let him attack the defense.”
Salem’s winning drive began with a 26-yard pass from Wofford to C.J. Smith – just Wofford’s second completion – that moved the ball to the 28. A 12-yard Wofford run gave Salem possession at the 8 with 44 seconds left.
After an incomplete pass, Wofford lost a yard on a keeper. He then hit Ibrahim on the same route he had misfired on two plays earlier.