The Fort Worth Bowl may not be considered among the most glamorous of the post-season contests, but it could turn out to be among the best. The University of Houston brings one of the nation's most prolific offenses to challenge a Kansas defense as rugged as the Great Plains. This game could be special, and chances are the outcome will not be decided until late in the fourth quarter.
The showcase of this contest will be the Cougar offense versus the Jayhawk defense. Houston finished 14th in the nation in total offense, averaging 456 yards per game. That's better than Oregon, UCLA, Fresno, and many others. Houston was fairly balanced, averaging 277 yards through the air and 179 on the ground. UH wasn't quite as impressive on the scoreboard as they were moving up and down the field. The Coogs were 40th in the country, averaging just a hair shy of 30 points per game. But that's still better than Miami (FL), Florida State, Georgia, and other powerhouses, and it would have been better if not for 25 turnovers. UH was 97th in the nation in turnover margin! Furthermore, the field-goal percentage was just barely over 50%, and several misses were from short range. Penalties were also a problem. So while UH had some big numbers offensively, they could have been huge if not for an abundance of mental mistakes.
The Cougar offense starts with and is predicated on the play of quarterback Kevin Kolb. When he's in a groove, throwing picture-perfect long passes and also rambling for good yardage on the option, the Cougars are all but impossible to stop. His major problem is becoming impatient and trying to force a big play when one isn't there. The Jayhawks will be a major challenge for him because he will undoubtedly get some heat. He has to be able to throw the ball away rather than force it into double coverage, or maybe even occasionally juke a defender, buy himself some time, and find a Vincent Marshall or Donnie Avery coming back to the ball. Speaking of Marshall and Avery, they finished #1 and #3, respectively, in receptions. Kendal Briles was 2nd, but Avery averaged 16 yards per reception and Marshall 13, so those two along with Anthony Alridge are homerun threats at receiver. Blade Bassler is a weapon at tight end. He may have been under-utilized this year. One wonders if he had been featured like Tulsa's Garrett Mills if he might not have been an All-American himself. The Coogs have been blessed to have two exceptional running backs in Ryan Gilbert and Anthony Evans. Gilbert is the more explosive of the two. If there's a seam, he'll get at least seven yards. Evans is just an excellent, instinctive back, who knows how to read blocks and find room. Jackie Battle, "the Battleship," weighs 245 pounds but still has good speed. He's a Christian Okeye-type back who will be the starter next year. The offensive line is led by fifth-year seniors David Douglas and Roy Swan, who combined weigh over 650 pounds, and sophomore tackle SirVincent Rogers, one of the most talented offensive lineman to come through UH in a long time.
Kansas, on the other hand, was as good defensively as UH was offensively. The Jayhawk defense finished in the top 20 nationally, coming in at #19 after surrendering 309 yards per game. But KU drops a few spots when it comes to points allowed. They gave up 23 points per contest, which is 0.2 better than Southern Miss and 0.7 better than Mississippi State, both UH opponents this season. Kansas excels against the run, giving up only 88 yards per game and finishing 3rd in the nation in rushing defense. Conversely, the Jayhawks' pass defense had problems, giving up 226 yards per game and ending up #65 in pass defense. Here's an area the Coogs may have to exploit.
The brightest star on the Kansas defense is linebacker Nick Reid. Watch him; he wears number 7. Reid (6-4, 230) was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He's sure to disrupt some plays; UH needs to neutralize him as much as possible. Banks Floodman and Kevin Kane are also fine senior linebackers, and that unit is the strength of the KU defense. Up front the Jayhawks are led by end Charlton Keith and have some impressive junior college transfers with size inside and excellent quickness at end. The best player after Reid and Keith may be CB Charles Gordon, a phenomenal athlete, but even so, if there is a soft spot on this miserly defense, it may be the secondary. The Cougars will likely need to make some big plays in the passing game to come away with the victory.
While the UH offense and KU defense are expected to provide the fireworks, it may well be the other sides of the coin that determine the winner. Houston's defense progressed throughout the year, which is to be expected given its youth and move to a new alignment, the 3-4. The Cougars ranked 69th in total defense and, more importantly, 61st in scoring defense. In their last three games, the UH defense allowed only 62 points. Although the Cougars gave up a lot of rushing yards, one must take into account that they faced some of the best backs in the nation this year in D'Angelo Williams, Johnny Norwood, and Tyler Ebell, among others. Houston' pass defense was much stingier, giving up 209 yards per game though the UH pass rush was largely ineffective.
Just as the offense starts with Kevin Kolb, the defense may start with Marquay Love, the 320-pound junior nose tackle. He commands double and even triple teams, which free linebackers to make plays. That is absolutely crucial in the 3-4. His backup, D.J. Johnson, is one of the best reserves around. Another vital cog in the Cougar defense is senior end Kade Lane, as steady as a mountain and just about as unmovable. Linebacker Wade Koehl and DBs Rocky Schwartz and Willie Gaston are other key contributors on defense.
To say the Kansas offense has been mediocre would be an understatement. In five games this season, they put the scorekeeper to sleep, putting up a grand total of 47 points. They have a couple of solid OL in David Ochoa, a Dobie product, and Bob Whitaker. Jason Swanson is a serviceable quarterback, and running backs Jon Cornish and Clark Green are solid if not spectacular. Charles Gordon sometimes moves to wide receiver to take advantage of his great speed and athleticism. The Coogs will need to watch him.
Special teams could decide the issue. Kansas beats UH by 6 yards in punting average and by 8 in net average. KU's Scott Webb was pretty close to automatic on field goals, hitting 14 of 17, including all 11 he attempted inside of 40 yards. UH used different kickers, but the final result was 11-20. Kansas's Charles Gordon averaged 11 yards per punt return while a combination of UH return men did the Jayhawks one yard better; however, the Cougars gave up 12 yards per return as well. Kickoff returns for the teams were virtually identical, each averaging right at 20 yards per return. But while the numbers may not look that far apart, UH has struggled at times with special teams. They don't keep records, for example, on how difficult it is for the punter to catch the snap. The Cougars don't need to return a punt or kickoff for a TD or block a field goal or anything special; they just need to play relatively well and avoid mistakes in this area.
This is a game that's tough to get a good feel for. Often times when there's talk of a great offense versus a great defense, the game will end up being just the opposite of what fans expect. My guess is the game will not be a shootout. Some points may be scored later in the second half, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a halftime score of something like 10-7. I think the Cougars are running into a pretty mean defense, more than likely the best they've faced all season. But up until this point, the best would have probably been Southern Miss and Oregon, and UH put up 27 and 24, respectively, against them.
What the Cougars need to do is remain patient on offense. That's not a UH trademark, but when you play a very good defense, you have to take what you can get and realize that you're not going to drive 80 yards every possession. And Kevin Kolb will face pressure. He has to throw the ball away rather than take a 10-yard sack or throw into the arms of a defender. Sometimes the best way to beat good defenses is to get yards on busted plays. What Kolb can't do is get overanxious and make ill-advised throws. And the offensive line can't be jumping every other series and putting UH in 3rd and long situations. Obviously the Cougars need to hold onto the ball. A key turnover could mean the difference in what could turn out to be a nail-biter.
So the Cougars need to do what you already know they need to do: play smart! They can move the ball down the field on Kansas or most anyone if they avoid penalties and plays that are doomed to lose yardage before the ball is ever snapped. But crafty defensive coaches—Phil Bennett and Joe Lee Dunne, for example—figure the best way to beat UH is to force long drives for the very reason that the Cougars so often will commit a penalty or run a reverse or slip screen that loses eight yards and puts them in a hole. When the Coogs get on a roll, just like in the old days with the veer, they are going to move the ball. It just depends on whether they hold on to it or not.
Defensively, UH just needs to play solid ball. Unfortunately, the Cougars don't really have big playmakers on defense like they do on offense, but they have improved as the season has worn on, and I don't think Kansas is going to find any easy sledding against these pumped up Mad Dogs. A key turnover or big sack would be great. But the important thing is to get some three and outs and keep Kansas on their side of the field as much as possible. KU scored under 20 points in six games, and they scored all of three points in two games. If not for a schedule that included Appalachian State and Florida Atlantic, they may be close to the bottom of the heap in points scored.
The Cougars must, absolutely must, play well on special teams! They don't need to do anything spectacular, but they can't snap the ball over the punter's head and let Kansas get a safety, miss chip-shot field goals, or fumble punt or kickoff returns. UH doesn't really need to win the special teams' battle; they just can't lose it by a large margin.
Houston does not have to play a perfect game to win. We're not playing USC. But we do need to play well and play smart. Kansas is a good team, and they've played some pretty tough opponents in Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, the Big 12 North schools, and Louisiana Tech. I think we line up against them well enough, but I'm concerned that they have three talented senior linebackers, and are strong in the kicking game. I like the fact that their offense is mediocre and they may be susceptible to the long ball. So the keys to a UH win are the following:
*Kevin Kolb must play well, lead the team with a cool demeanor, and avoid big mistakes
*Special teams must hold their own
*Cougars need to win the turnover battle