Next Door Neighbors
The two Houston school's campuses are merely minutes away from each other and because of that the rivalry is a naturally occurring one. Players see each other around town. Alumni from each of the schools work together. Each school "competes" for space in the Houston Chronicle (though that hasn't been an issue of late – Rice beat writer MK Bower's coverage has been excellent). Anyway, the Cougars relish the thought of beating up on the "brainiacs" from Rice – the Owls see the Cougars as the obnoxious neighbor next door who always has something to say, and would love to shut them up. Each team is full of Texas high school players that played with and against each other. Add to it that the Coogs and Owls seem to be competing for a lot of the same recruits lately. UH freshman RB Terrance Ganaway is as an example. He was committed to the Owls for several weeks before ultimately switching to the Cougars last year. The rivalry has really heated up in recent years as the game took on conference implications with Rice joining C-USA. The game has been moved back on the schedule to be played earlier in the year – which means it has big conference implications. This is a big game for a lot of reasons.
The Houston Cougars are the defending C-USA Champions. They earned that on the field last year. They were and still are a very confident football team. They'd like to think they are a Top 25 program, problem is they've lost 3 times already this year, one of those a conference loss to East Carolina. They know losing another conference game puts them in tough spot to repeat as C-USA Champions. They played well against Alabama last weekend against 92,000 fans – they are confident they will do the same today against a full Robertson Stadium house, albeit 33,000. They've been pointing to this game all week as a "break out" game. Let's look at their team:
Quarterback: The biggest difference in this year's UH team versus the 2006 Cougars is they don't have Kevin Kolb or Jackie Battle. The latter had 954 rushing yards last year. Kolb was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cougars have used a two man rotation this year – going with former Bryan Viking Blake Joseph and Case Keenum. Joseph had been the starter but has been banged up – he left the game at Alabama with a concussion last week. He's thrown only one interception this year to Keenum's seven. Blake's brother Clay Joseph is a freshman punter for the Owls. Keenum will get the start today against the Owls as Joseph is still feeling the effects of the Alabama game. Keenum would best be described as a "gamer" – he darn near led the Cougars to the upset last weekend and the team has confidence in him.
It's basically a two man show: Anthony Alridge and Terrance Ganaway. Both are averaging over 5 yards a carry. Alridge is not a big guy but runs hard and is a definite threat to go the distance anytime he touches the ball with his 4.3 forty speed. He's a lot like Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher – only faster. Ganaway is more of a between the tackles runner at 6-0 215. He had a prolific career at 2A DeKalb, garnering 2A Player of the Year recognition last year and the Owls wanted him badly in their backfield. Major Applewhite had recruited him – wonder if they had a chance to speak last Saturday?
Wide Receiver/TE: I would expect the Cougars to be throwing Jeron Harvey's way all day today. Harvey goes 6-5 215 which presents match up problems for the Owls. The Owl DBs have struggled against big receivers this year so far. Possibly the bigger threat, make that big play threat is Donnie Avery. His speed is a big concern for any secondary, especially the Owls'. He and Alridge are arguably the fastest players on the Cougar team. He's returned on kickoff already this 100 yards for a score. Avery also leads the Cougars with 33 receptions for 538 yards this season. He has an impressive 16.3 ypc and a long of 68 yards. He's been in the end zone 3 times.
Offensive Line: Right Tackle Jeff Akeroyd was a Pre-Season All C-USA pick. The Cougars are averaging over 40 rushing attempts a game this year, for a 190.2 ypg average. They've given up 14 sacks – a number the Owls will need to add to if they are to come out successful. The number is a little skewed considering Alabama had 5 of those sacks. Left Guard Dustin Dickinson makes his 31st consecutive start Saturday.
Like the Owls, Houston employs a hybrid 4-2-5 defensive scheme. They don't use the same terminology and also use different personnel schemes - employing a linebacker at one of the defensive end spots which is really more similar to a 3-4. The Cougars are giving up 30.4 points a game this year, while averaging 31.6 themselves. Opposing teams have averaged 180.4 yards per game rushing against UH. Through the air they are giving up 180.4 yards. They've achieved a strange balance it seems. Opposing teams have scored only one less touchdown through their 5 games. No question, the Cougars want to win games with offense.
Defensive Line: Defensive End Ell Ash got a lot of the attention in pre-season, being selected to the Pre-Season C-USA 1st Team. So far Tate Stewart is the player making the most plays on the defensive line though. He has 27 tackles from his NG position, second on the team. Stewart has 4 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks too. Stewart transformed himself into the player he is having lost over 40 pounds to improve his quickness. Philip Hunt was a Pre-season 2nd Team pick and is playing like a man who feels slighted – he has 4.5 sacks already this season.
Linebackers: Houston has a fantastic linebacker in Brendan Pahulu. He leads the team in interceptions with 2 from his SLB position; he has 5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. Pahulu plays on the line of scrimmage much like an end. Local product Cody Lubojasky starts at MLB with Longview Spring Hill's Trent Allen starting at WLB. The Cougars also employ a Drop linebacker who has coverage responsibility – Ernest Miller. Miller is more of a safety at 6-0 195 so the position title means little.
Secondary: Rocky Schwartz is arguably the leader of the Cougar defense. At 5-10 205 pounds he isn't prototypical for a Free Safety – he is very productive though. He leads the team in tackles with 44. Harry Simon is a former walk-on who's made a home at cornerback. Kenneth Fontenette is the Strong Safety, but started the season at cornerback. East Carolina put up 345 yards on this secondary, so they have been vulnerable at times. They've shifted their line up since that game with Quinte Williams getting the start at CB against Alabama.
Keys to Winning:
I could just cut and paste from the Southern Miss game here. The Owls will have to do a lot of the same things to win this game. Rice really focused on stopping the run against the Golden Eagles, which in spite of statistics they actually did at times. This game is a real challenge defensively – the Cougar's speed on offense will have to be accounted for. Much like Baylor did with Brandon Whitaker the Cougars love to slip Anthony Alridge out of the backfield into the flats. If the Owls do spend too much focus on the perimeter Alridge is slippery enough to hit the smallest of seams between the tackles. They will use Terrance Ganaway a lot between the tackles too. Offensively, the Owls are creeping closer to being at full speed. Joel Armstrong will see his first action of the season Saturday. Corbin Smiter saw limited time last week coming back from injury. Both will have to step up. Opposing defenses have prepared for Jarett Dillard in every game we've played this year - the Cougars will be no different. Our other receivers will have to make plays when the ball comes their way. C.J. Ogokwe will likely play today, but Justin Hill has shown what he can do with the ball in his hands. The Owls have to capitalize on opportunities and not make mistakes. They are still a narrow margin team where a turnover or missed field goal or a dropped pass – can lose their momentum quickly. The Owls need to keep this one close; whether they win or lose today they have to continue to make progress in confidence and execution.
Cougars are calling for their team to play their best game today, to blow the Owls out and show why they won the C-USA last year. Owls you haven't come close to your best game yet – last week you showed some flashes of firepower on both sides of the ball. The Owls have played in hostile environments too this year so the Cougars talk shouldn't have too much of an effect on them.
It's a short trip Owls, pack lightly, in fact just take some swagger and know that you've played bigger, faster, and more talented teams already this year – and then go quiet the talk...