Fittingly, the Univeristy of Houston’s bowl recreation on Thursday can function the poster baby for the “Season of COVID-19.”
The New Mexico Bowl will likely be performed in Frisco, a suburb of Dallas, in opposition to a Hawaii staff making a uncommon postseason look on the U.S. mainland.
“It’s a day by day journey,” UH coach Dana Holgorsen mentioned. “Identical to all of 2020 has been.”
Holgorsen admits it’s “not your typical bowl recreation.” In truth, he was skeptical there can be any bowl video games, a lot much less a end line to the season, after the Cougars had been one of many hardest hit groups in FBS with eight video games interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Greater than 20 FBS groups selected to not settle for a bowl invitation, at the same time as minimal win necessities had been waived. That led to 17 bowls being canceled as a result of there weren’t sufficient groups to fill spots. A couple of bowls had been compelled to relocate because of native and state COVID-19 tips, just like the New Mexico Bowl from Albuquerque and the Rose Bowl from Pasadena, Calif., to AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“Ninety-nine p.c of this yr, we didn’t suppose bowl video games would exist,” Holgorsen mentioned.
What can the Cougars count on Thursday at Toyota Stadium? Just about what they’ve encountered all season.
A restricted crowd will likely be in attendance, the identical setup for UH’s different seven video games this season, because the staff prevented enjoying in an empty stadium that was the destiny of different groups throughout the nation.
“We didn’t expertise that,” Holgorsen mentioned, including the New Mexico Bowl may have the texture of a “neutral-site street recreation.”
UH (3-4) has been compelled to be adaptable this season with three straight openers canceled, pushing the beginning of the season into October for the primary time in program historical past. As soon as the season lastly started, the Cougars performed six straight weeks earlier than a virus outbreak worn out two extra video games. Even the make-up video games weren’t secure; a late season journey to SMU was canceled because of COVID-19 points inside the Mustangs’ program.
“Clearly we’re grateful to be enjoying after we had as many video games as we did get canceled,” quarterback Clayton Tune mentioned. “We’re simply glad to play. We wish to ship the seniors and the fellows who should not returning out the correct means.”
A part of the attract of postseason video games is the off-field occasions, which embrace staff outings and different visits throughout bowl week. None of that’s potential this yr. In what quantities to a fast enterprise journey, UH arrived by bus early Wednesday evening for a keep that will likely be barely greater than 24 hours.
“It’s bizarre,” Tune mentioned. “It positively doesn’t really feel like a bowl recreation. It simply type of seems like an away recreation.”
On a pregame name with reporters Wednesday, Holgorsen mentioned the Cougars will likely be with out 12 to 16 gamers for “quite a lot of causes.” That quantity, presumably, consists of three key gamers — defensive finish Payton Turner, large receiver Marquez Stevenson and linebacker Grant Stuard — who opted out of the sport to start preparations for the NFL draft.
Turner had a team-high 5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 5 video games this season. Stevenson, arguably the quickest participant on the roster, mixed for two,200 yards and 22 touchdowns the previous three seasons. Stuard was UH’s main tackler in 2019 and 2020.
“Nice gamers which are exhausting to interchange,” Holgorsen mentioned. “It turns the web page faster than it usually does. We’ve performed video games with out these guys this yr. On the finish of the season you all the time go, ‘How on the earth are we going to maneuver on with out a few of these seniors?’ Then you definitely get into spring soccer and also you exchange them by guys stepping up.
“You progress on. The one factor that 2020 has taught us is it doesn’t matter who is out there, don’t fear about it, no person cares and (groups) are coping with the identical stuff. It simply makes you adapt rapidly.”
A win by the Cougars might be used as a springboard into Yr 3 underneath Holgorsen, to not point out “flush” the frustration from the 30-27 loss to Memphis to finish the common season.
“I might say we’ve been in a position to flush it for probably the most half, however we’re nonetheless going to make use of that sick-to-our-stomach feeling to gasoline us for this recreation,” Tune mentioned. “We positively wish to finish the yr on an excellent word. Simply construct on what we’ve and use a win to gasoline us into the offseason and in the end subsequent season.”
Some good has come from the New Mexico Bowl transferring to Frisco.
“That’s proper in my yard,” mentioned Tune, who’s from Carrollton.
Whether or not or not the Cougars ever believed they’d attain this level of the season, Holgorsen is simply grateful for one more recreation in a season with few.
“Yet another alternative to play earlier than we wrap this factor up in 2020,” he mentioned. “It’s been fairly adventurous.”