A stadium resplendent with scarlet and a panoply of purple, the sound of trumpets and trombones, the swell and slump of cheers and jeers, television cameras, national attention, and the special feeling attached to a bowl game: With its acceptance of an invitation to the Texas Bowl, the University of Houston football team will give its fans their fourth such experience in five years when they play the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University on December 28th at Reliant Stadium. Although this year's Texas Bowl between the 8-4 Cougars and the 7-5 Frogs won't receive the fanfare of some higher profile post-season games, this Texas showdown could be one of the bowl season's best matchups.
For one thing, it's an intrastate battle between two old rivals. UH and TCU were both in the SWC, and the teams competed in C-USA until the Frogs heard the siren song of the Mountain West Conference three years ago. UH holds a slim 13-11 lead in the series all-time. The game is also a contest between two non-BCS conferences. The MWC has scored higher in RPI ratings than Conference USA the past few years, yet Tulsa beat MWC champion BYU, and C-USA was 3-0 against the MWC this season. Also interesting is that Houston's coach the past five years recently accepted the head coaching position at Baylor, and he and two of his assistants, both co-offensive coordinators, will not coach in the game. UH has named OU co-offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin as the school‘s 11th head coach, but he has a commitment to Oklahoma, which is playing in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against West Virginia. Veteran assistant Chris Thurmond will serve as UH's interim head coach. And TCU's Gary Patterson was close to leaving the Frogs for the top job at Arkansas when Bobby Petrino was tabbed at the last minute by the Hogs. Could there be some effect on either team's motivation? Hard to say, but definitely a possibility. But the most intriguing aspect of this year's Texas Bowl is that the game is a classic example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Statistically, Houston has the nation's fourth-best offense, averaging a whopping 513 yards per game. TCU finished with the 16th ranked defense in the country. So the game should be a classic clash between a high-flying UH offense and a stingy Horned Frog defense.
The Cougars have tremendous speed with RB Anthony Alridge and WR Donnie Avery. The two get down the field so fast they look as if they've been energized by a Star Trek transporter. Terrance Ganaway will spell Alridge, especially for tough yards. Wide receiver Jeron Harvey is capable of big plays, as is tight end Mark Hafner, an often overlooked but integral part of the UH attack. Case Keenum is an excellent scrambler who throws the intermediate ball very well. He is a playmaker, one who can turn a probable sack into a nifty gain via the ground or the air. Blake Joseph would be the prohibitive favorite in the passing segment of most punt, pass, and kick competitions. Few quarterbacks in the country have as live an arm. The offensive line has had its ups and downs. Jeff Akeroyd and Dustin Dickinson are the two to watch, though 6-8 German import Sebastian Vollmer (AKA Seabass) may be the team's most intriguing player.
TCU may have the best defense among non-BCS schools in the nation. They are loaded at defensive end, linebacker, and safety. The Frogs run the 4-2-5, which is masterminded by former UH defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas. Defensive end Chase Ortiz was voted TCU's MVP this year. He and Tommy Blake are two of the top defensive ends on any one team in college football. Blake was considered a first-round draft choice at the beginning of the season, but he has struggled this year with personal issues and missed several games. His weight ballooned to 290 at one point. He's down to about 270, but that's still 20 pounds over his usual 250, and he's lost some quickness. Middle linebacker Jason Phillips is excellent, and someone that UH will have to block if they are to have any success running the ball. Safeties David Roach and Stephen Hodge are great athletes who have the size of linebackers and the speed of defensive backs.
Houston Offense vs. TCU Defense
Houston has an all-conference tackle in Jeff Akeroyd. He'll square off against three-time All-MWC DE Chase Ortiz. If Akeroyd wins the day, then UH will be tough to stop. On other hand, if Ortiz disrupts the Cougar offense and Houston's coaches have to double team him, then advantage TCU. Horned Frog defensive end Tommy Blake may not be quite ready to go. Without his exceptional quickness, he may have as much trouble getting to the Cougar quarterback as Pickett's division had getting to the clump of trees. LT Sebastian Vollmer (6-8, 290) will be trying to keep him at bay. TCU is no pushover inside, but their nose tackle and defensive tackle are both first-year starters; in fact, the NT is a 280-pound true freshman. So while December 28th won't be a walk in Reliant Park for UH center Carl Barnett, neither should it be a day of tribulation. TCU has a fine defensive line, though it may not quite be in Alabama‘s class, and it's surely not as gargantuan as Oregon's front four. The Cougars' offensive line must neutralize pressure from the corner, and open some seams for Alridge to slip through. TCU's goal will be to stay in Keenum's face, contain well, and clog up the running lanes.
Obviously the Frog linebackers and safeties will put a large bull's eye on Alridge's jersey. In some respects, the 4-2-5 should work well since TCU will have more speed on the field, and they may use a spy, possibly weak safety Brian Bonner, to stalk #22. But UH has a couple of fullbacks who will be on seek-and-destroy missions. Look especially for Kenny Atkins, who is pretty quick himself and a blocker that could get out on defensive backs. TCU likes to send their safeties. Chances are Keenum will feel pressure, but if UH can pick up any of those blitzes and get the ball to Alridge (or Avery ) on the perimeter, Quick Six will earn his nickname. And if Keenum is able to navigate his way through the first wave of oncoming defenders, he may find plenty of daylight himself.
UH has arguably the two best starting wide receivers in C-USA in Avery and Harvey. TCU's cornerbacks are talented, but young and only 5-9 to 5-10. So this could be a coming-out party for Harvey, or possibly L.J. Castile, who combines a 6-3 frame with outstanding leaping ability. And Avery could get deep on some NFL cornerbacks, so TCU will always have to be aware of him. Again, the key is will the UH quarterback have time to find him. If he does, there should also be plenty of underneath targets such as Mark Hafner and Teric Williams. Speaking of Williams, one way that UH may be able to counter outside pressure would be to throw screens. If the corners are picked up, UH could gain a lot of yards that way since the three safeties usually play inside.
But the success of Alridge and Avery is key. And whether they dazzle the defense and the crowd will be determined by the decision-making of the Cougar quarterback and the play of the offensive line. But Keenum and Joseph will have a much easier time making decisions if there's open field and time to throw, so the battle in the trenches will largely determine who wins the war.
Redshirt freshman Andy Dalton won the starting quarterback job over sophomore Marcus Jackson. Jackson is more athletic, but Dalton may be less prone to mistakes, and first and foremost, TCU's objective is not to beat itself. The Frogs lost their top running back, Aaron Brown, to injuries; he will not play in the Texas Bowl. Joseph Turner has stepped in ably, providing good power at 226 pounds. But he definitely is not the breakaway threat that Brown was. TCU's receivers are solid if unspectacular. Ervin Dickerson is the group's linchpin. Defenses overlook tight end Shae Reagan at their peril. He averages 21 yards per catch. The offensive line has a UH connection in left tackle, Michael Newhouse, the cousin of Cougar great Robert Newhouse. TCU's best offensive linemen is probably the one who lines up next to Newhouse, senior Marty Lindner. The Frogs have a decent but not great offensive line. Actually, its quality seems very similar to Houston's.
The Cougars struggled defensively again this year. In some respects, their defense has been the same kind of disappointment to UH fans as TCU‘s offense has been to theirs. The Coogs gave up a very respectable 366 yards per game, but they also surrendered a dismal 30 points per contest, and that's all that really counts. There is talent in the defensive line. End Phillip Hunt has become a premier pass rusher, ranking 18th nationally in sacks. Ell Ash, Cody Pree, and Tate Stewart all have ability, and Brendan Pahulu is very effective in passing situations. The linebackers are gamers, but they don't have the speed to compete effectively at the highest level. Kenneth Fontenette and Ernest Miller are both very athletic, savvy safeties. Essentially, they are a little smaller and a smidgen faster than the quality safeties at TCU. Cornerback has been a problem for UH all year.
TCU Offense vs. Houston Defense
Often when a game is billed as a great battle between two players or units, its other players or units that determine who wins; that could be the case here. TCU's offense has been marginally productive just as UH's defense has had its moments. If TCU were to move the ball very well or if UH were to force a lot of three and outs, the game could be very different from what most people expect. The Texas Bowl could even be a little lopsided if either of the units considered weak link were to have a big game.
TCU needs to run the ball to be successful, and one area where UH has had success defensively is against the run. While the Cougar linebackers aren't going to chase down 4.3 running backs heading for the sidelines, those same linebackers do a good job of plugging up the middle. Teams that have gained yardage running the ball against the Coogs have typically had smaller, slashing backs rather than power runners such as TCU's Turner. But, yet again, trench warfare should make the difference.
Aside from Hunt, UH has not had much success pressuring the passer; however, some of that was very possibly because the former head coach disallowed much blitzing. Things could change with Thurmond in charge. Dalton is not a terribly mobile quarterback, but it's not as if he's had six knee surgeries either. He's pretty close to Blake Joseph as a runner; he will pick up some yards if his receivers are covered and he sees a nice patch of real estate in front of him. One factor working in UH's favor is that TCU doesn't have anyone remotely resembling Calvin Johnson, Adarius Bowman, or Michael Crabtree. They have some serviceable receivers, but none are so good that the Cougars cornerbacks will be unable to keep up with them.
UH will want to get TCU in third-and-six-type situations, while the Frogs will try to average about five yards per carry and shoot for 3rd and one or two if they have to get to third down at all. The play of Andy Dalton, a Katy HS product, will obviously be important. He's a competent quarterback, and will have his moments. But TCU depends on him not turning the ball over or putting his team in a hole. Phillip Hunt and other Cougar defenders will be trying to see that he does, and if that happens, the Frogs could find themselves in serious trouble; and the Cougars may find themselves facing a new quarterback, Marcus Jackson, who is more of a dual-threat, the kind of signal caller that has typically given UH the most trouble. But there must be a reason he's not starting. Interestingly enough, UH did not recruit hometown product Andy Dalton.
Houston Special Teams
UH has had major problems with special teams for a few years now. Punting has been disastrous, and the Cougars finished 11th in C-USA in field-goal percentage. Still, hope springs eternal. The disastrous punting improved toward the end of the year. Freshman Chase Turner has a bionic leg, but his mechanics were unsound early in the season. By his last game, he punted for a 51 yard average. And take away T. J. Lawrence's one terrible game against East Carolina, and he did a decent job. He's also dynamite on kickoffs, often sailing them well into opponents' end zones; in fact, UH was first in C-USA in kickoff coverage, and that was due more to Lawrence's kickoffs than anything else. Kickoff and punt returns were fair, though the Cougars may have been better had Avery and Alridge been back to receive kickoffs more often than they were.
TCU Special Teams
Special teams are particularly important to teams with TCU's philosophy of playing great defense and avoiding mistakes on offense. And, indeed, special teams have been special for the Frogs. Their punter, Derrick Wash, ranks 17th nationally with his 43 yards per punt average; Chris Manfredini has converted on 10 consecutive field goal attempts, has an 80% percentage, and has not missed an extra point all year; Brian Bonner is one of the nation's best punt returners--he averages 12 yards per return--and Donald Massey is a dangerous kickoff return man. So TCU is very sound in the kicking game.
Houston Special Teams vs. TCU Special Teams
TCU gets the nod here. Now it may be that Turner will punt lights out, Lawrence will blast kickoffs into the end zone and nail a long field goal, and the Coogs will return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. But until they do, the edge goes to the Horned Frogs. And special teams and turnovers may be the difference in the game.
Head coach Gary Patterson has done an excellent job at TCU, leading and maintaining a program that is unquestionably one of the best of the non-BCS schools. Patterson is 61-25 since taking over at TCU after Dennis Franchione left for Alabama. The Frogs have a solid staff with several veteran assistants in defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas, offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, and assistant head coach Eddie Williamson. As mentioned Bumpas coached at UH, as did current TCU linebackers coach Tony Tademy.
Long-time assistant coach Chris Thurmond has assumed the reins as the interim head coach. He does seem to fit the role of a head coach well, but at this point, everything's been on the practice field or in the media. Two first-year coaches at UH, George Pugh and Rafe Mata, will serve as offensive coordinators after Phillip Montgomery and Randy Clements defected to Baylor along with the real offensive coordinator, Art Briles. Former offensive assistant Jason Phillips was brought in to help with the offense. Alan Weddell will continue in his role as defensive coordinator, and all the defensive assistants will remain in the same positions they held during the season.
TCU Coaching vs. Houston Coaching
Texas Christian obviously wins this one. Frog fans must be salivating over the idea of defensive mavens Gary Patterson and Dick Bumpas bumping heads with Rafe Mata, a grad assistant last year, and George Pugh, who just learned Briles' offense this season. The TCU offensive staff won't have anything on the Cougars' defensive coaches. Alan Weddell, Chris Thurmond, Charlie Rizzo, and the rest are more than a match for Schultz and his cohorts, but the disparity in experience between the Cougars' offensive neophytes and TCU's defensive coaches is glaring.