Resurgent Cougars?

When the University of Houston football team and its annoying fight song take the field at 7 p.m., Saturday at Royal-Texas Memorial-Stadium against No. 2/No. 3 Texas, there will be no mistaking this year’s squad with the prolific run-and-shoot team that came to Austin in 1990 ("Would someone get that idiot off the goalpost?").

Then again, there should be no mistaking the current Cougars with the 0-11 unit that Texas polished off 53-26 on the road last season.

"Houston is 2-1 and playing with a lot more confidence," head coach Mack Brown said. "This game will be their Super Bowl."

Houston downed cross-town rival Rice to open the season and then snapped a nine-game home losing streak at nine Saturday with its 36-17 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cougars lone setback this season was a 34-13 decision to Tulane (a cold-comfort to Texas as the Green Wave will host the Horns at the Louisiana Superdome on Sept. 28).

These days, the Cougars typically run a one-back set featuring college football’s 15th best rusher, RB Joffrey Reynolds. Reynolds is averaging 137.3 yards-per-game and has eclipsed the century mark in each of his team’s first three ball contests. He totaled 114 yards on 17 carries and scored a touchdown in the win last Saturday. Reynolds is a rare commodity in that he is the school’s top returning rusher (818 yards, 181 attempts, 7 TDs) and top returning receiver (349 yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD).

"He’s one of the few backs to have gained more than 100 yards of rushing against us since we’ve been here," Brown said, of Reynolds' '00 efforts against Texas. Last year, the Longhorn defense held Reynolds to 56 yards on 15 attempts but gave up 364 yards through the air.

This year, Houston’s offense (ranked No. 37 nationally) returns seven starters and is relying more on the ground game (236.7 yards rushing, 174.7 yards rushing). The stats haven’t translated as easily into points (24.3 ppg) because the Cougars are giving the ball away like it’s government cheese. In three games, this week's visitors have fumbled 12 times (losing 9) and have three interceptions.

Against Louisiana Lafayette, Houston QB Barrick Nealy scored three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and was 11 of 24 for 182 yards in just under three quarters of work.

"The quarterback has run the ball really, really well, both he and Reynolds," Brown said of the redshirt freshman signal caller. "He’s a big, strong guy so they’re making more plays in the running game."

Nealy exited Saturday’s game in the second half, however, with an injured knee.

"The backup quarterback (Nick Eddy) is more of a thrower," Brown said, "so he goes back to more of the offense they were running last year (with QB Kelly Robertson). We’ll just have to watch and see what quarterback’s in the game. They’re playing more than one."

Houston returns six starters on defense, through three games giving up 115 yards rushing and 192 yards passing to rank 35th nationally.

"That’s a whole lot better than they were last year," Brown said.

For the second week in a row, Texas faces a defense whose primary stud and leading tackler is the free safety which means there has been room to roam between the line-of-scrimmage and the last-man-to-beat. (Cedric Benson, start your engine!)

FS Hanik Milligan has totaled 36 tackles (15 solo) and will be one of the better defensive backs Texas will face all year. He was Conference USA Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Rice.

"He’ll be in the NFL next year," Brown said.

The Texas head coach is leery of DE Adrian Lee, whom Brown said is the Cougars best pass rusher. On the year, the 6-3, 246 pound senior has recorded 11 tackles (6 unassisted), one sack, three quarterback hurries and has recovered one fumble.

Cougar field-goal kicker Dustin Bell has connected on all six attempts this season and is Conference USA’s Special Teams Player of the Week for his work Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette. The sophomore was true from 37, 41 and 44 yards out. The 44-yarder was not only a personal best but also the longest by a Houston FG kicker in three years. His six field goals actually doubles the total number of field goals Houston made all last year. Bell is the Cougars’ leading scorer with 25 points.

Houston has punted 10 times in three games, with a net punt average of 36 yards.

Saturday’s contest completes a three-game series in which the Cougars paid two visits to Austin. Texas has outscored Houston the past two meetings by a combined 101-26 margin. During its current six-game winning streak vs. U of H, Texas has won by an average score of 47-19. The Longhorns lead the all-time series with the Cougars, 15-7-2. Houston’s last win against Texas was back in the old Southwest Conference days during David McWilliams’ last month as Texas head coach. Houston upended the visiting Longhorns, 23-14, in November 1991.

Texas has won 14 straight home games and is 22-2 in Austin under Brown. The current 14-game home winning streak is the program’s longest since the school record of 42 established from 1968 to 1976.

The Houston game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis throughout Texas and nationwide on DirectTV and Dish Network satellite systems.


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