Houston Preview

Will he or won't he play? It might not matter. What will matter is whether UCLA's offense can move the ball, stay on the field and keep Houston's offense off the field, with Case Keenum or not...

FACTS AND FACTORS

-- The Houston Cougars come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to take on the Bruins in a game televised on FSN at 7:30 p.m. Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis are in the booth and Rebecca Haarlow on the sideline.

-- UCLA is, of course, 0-2, losing to Kansas State, 31-22 September 4th, and then getting drubbed last week against Stanford at home, 35-0.

-- Houston is 2-0, having beaten Texas State 68-28 and UTEP 54-24.

-- It's the first road game of the season for the Cougars.

-- The all-time series between the two programs is tied 2-2. UCLA won at Houston in the last matchup in 1998, 44-24. The year before, in 1997, the Bruins beat the Cougars 66-10. UCLA lost to Houston in 1979, 24-16, and in 1977, 17-13. Both times Houston was ranked in the top 25 in the country.

-- Houston is currently ranked #23 in the nation.

-- In UCLA's wins in 1998 and 1997, Cade McNown threw for a combined 612 yards and six touchdown passes, and didn't even play most of the second half of the 1997 game. In that game, the score was 45-3 at halftime.

-- Houston is coached by Kevin Sumlin, in his third season with the Cougars. In his two seasons, Sumlin is 20-9 with back-to-back bowl appearances. That makes him the only head coach in Houston history to lead the team to two bowl appearances in his first two seasons. Under Sumlin, the former offensive coordinator with Purdue and Oklahoma (under Bob Stoops), Houston has become an offensive juggernaut, last season being only the third team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer and three 1,000-yard receivers (Texas Tech did it in 2007 and Tulsa in 2007). In the off-season Sumlin inked a contract extension and brought in a new defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, with NFL experience (he is the former DC for the Dallas Cowboys), so Sumlin, even before the two wins to start the season, is the toast of the town.

-- With last year's trip to the Air Force Bowl, the Cougars have been to a school-record five straight bowl games, and six bowl games in seven seasons.

-- Houston has won the Conference USA championship just twice, in 2006 and 1996.

-- Last season was one of the sixth best seasons in Houston's football history. It' ten wins in 2009 equaled those in 1976, 1990 and 2006, and the Cougars have posted 11 wins in 1973 and 1979.

-- Houston should be favored in every one of its remaining games. If it notches a win against UCLA, Houston supporters are envisioning an undefeated season and potential consideration in the BCS championship. The Cougars have a good chance, with their remaining opponents so far posting a combined 8-11 record.

-- Houston quarterback Case Keenum is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He is currently fifth on the NCAA all-time passing list, and is 3,570 yards away from setting the all-time NCAA record. He is also 2,591 yards away from setting the NCAA all-time record for total offense.

-- Keenum experienced a concussion last week against UTEP and is currently listed as day-to-day.

-- If UCLA loses to Houston, it goes on the road to face #4-ranked Texas in Austin 0-3, and facing down a 0-4 start. IF UCLA does indeed lose to Houston and Texas, it would tie for UCLA's worst start to a season since 1971, when Pepper Rogers' Bruins started 0-4 and ended the season 2-7-1.

-- The next worst start since 1971 was in 1983 when UCLA began the season 0-3-1, but finished the season 7-4-1, won the Pac-10 and trounced highly-favored and #4-ranked Illinois in the Rose Bowl, 45-9. That season the quarterback for the Bruins was Rick Neuheisel, who won the starting job four games into the season and ending up passing for 2,245 yards and was the Rose Bowl MVP, throwing for 298 yards and four touchdowns in that game. Neuheisel still holds the UCLA single-season record for completion percentage, completing 69.3% of his passes in 1983.

-- Weather-wise, it should be another perfect day at the Rose Bowl for football on Saturday. The high is projected to be 80 degrees, and about 65 degrees at game time.

HOUSTON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

The Cougars returned eight starters from an offense that was #1 in scoring (42 points per game), passing (433 yards per game) and total offense (563 yards per game) in the country in 2009.

And they've pretty much done what you would expect in their first two games. So far in 2010 they are the #1 scoring offense in the nation (61 points per game) and #3 in total offense (576 yards per game).

Of course, those lofty statistics come with an asterisk. The Cougars have done it so far this season against Texas State and UTEP, not exactly two defensive stalwarts. And last season, they didn't exactly get too many highly-ranked defenses in Conference USA. In the three games last season when they faced three worthy, out-of-conference opponents (Texas Tech, Air Force and Oklahoma State, respectively), the offense's numbers were a bit more modest, averaging 31 point, 474 total yards and 341 yards passing per game. Still very good numbers, but not the mind-boggling kind they get in conference.

So much of their offensive success relies on their quarterback, Case Keenum (6-2, 210), who is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and one of the most successful quarterbacks in NCAA history. You can heap on all of the stats and records – last season leading the nation in passing (5,671 yards) and total yards, and he is currently fifth on the all-time passing list, needing, 3,570 yards to break the all-time career passing record (17,072; Hawaii's Timmy Chang) and 2,591 to break the all-time total offense record (16,910; Chang), as well as the all-time record for touchdown passes (Keenum has 107, and the all-time record is 134 held by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell).

He is very efficient and accurate, and probably his best asset is the capability of recognizing open receivers early and getting off the ball quickly.

The problem for Houston, though, is that Keenum suffered a mild concussion in last Friday night's game against UTEP and is being listed as "day-to-day." The skeptics are insisting he'll play, but at this point it's truly uncertain. Houston's offensive coordinator Jason Phillips said they're preparing like they'll have Keenum available, whatever that means. Junior Cotton Turner (6-1, 199), a former walk-on, replaced Keenum last week, and was good, going 9-for-10 for 69 yards and a touchdown, while he also was 8-for-11 against Texas State the week before. While the Houston spread offense is responsible greatly for the throwing stats, and you could plug in just about anyone and it would probably keep humming, Turner is clearly a step down from Keenum.

One of the reasons why Turner stepped in and did well is that Houston has three 1,000-yard receivers from last season, senior James Cleveland (6-2, 205), junior Pat Edwards (5-9, 175) and junior Tyron Carrier (5-8, 170). All three are dangerous, and Cleveland is the #1 option, the go-to guy. Edwards and Carrier are small, fleet and shifty. Senior Kierrie Johnson (5-10, 175) is the fourth starting receiver in the spread, and he's definitely a downfield threat.

What limited Houston's offense last season was a lack of a rushing game. They were 83rd in the nation in rushing, and their off-season goal was to improve that statistic. So far this season they definitely have, having gone from averaging 129 yards per game in 2009 to 229 per game this season so far. Of course, there is the Texas State/UTEP factor. But regardless, you have to think that Houston's running game is a threat.

Tailback Bryce Beall.


Junior running back Bryce Beall (5-11, 209) is a big reason for that. He was the Conference USA Freshman of the year in 2008, then had a down sophomore season in 2009 when he lost his confidence. When projected starter Charles Sims was deemed academically ineligible, it fell to Beall, and he hasn't disappointed, rushing for 243 yards on 24 carries so far this season, which is an average of 10.1 yards per carry. Beall is a compact, strong runner, who has a good burst upfield and gets into the opponent's secondary quickly.

Backing up Beall admirably so far this season has been junior Michael Hayes (5-9, 192), who is probably more elusive but smaller and less durable. They like to use Hayes as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, to get him into open space.

The offensive line has had some questions. There are three returning veterans, in center Jordan Shoemaker (6-3, 285), right guard Chris Thompson (6-2, 285) and right tackle Roy Watts (6-5, 310). In the off-season, defensive tackle Isaiah Thompson (6-4, 300) made the move to offensive line to fill in a hole at left guard. Sophomore Jacolby Ashworth (6-4, 295) got some experience last season but is thought to be a little vulnerable at the left tackle spot.

UCLA's defense is in for an entirely different type of game against Houston than what it saw defending Kansas State and Stanford. The emphasis goes from a running game to a wide-open passing game, so UCLA's passing defense is going to get its first big test of the season.

So far, the secondary has held up, allowing just 107 yards passing per game, which is good enough to be ranked 10th in the nation.

But this is a whole new ballgame. Houston will use 4 and commonly 5 receivers at any given time, and UCLA will probably play in its nickel package for a big portion of the game. This will put a great deal of pressure on the safeties to keep the ball in front of them. So far this season, strong safety Tony Dye has been UCLA'S anchor, leading the team in tackles with 22, and being all over the field. He's been good in run support, but now he'll get tested in his pass coverage.

Andrew Abbott has generally been the #1 nickel back in UCLA's defense for the last two seasons, but
Dalton Hilliard has been getting a good amount of time at the position in practice and could get a good amount of playing time Saturday.

Up front, UCLA has been shuttling in and out various personnel from play to play, and you can certainly expect more of that against Houston. UCLA will go to a three-down-linemen set sometimes, and when it does it will try to get in its better pass rushers, like defensive end Keenan Graham. Strongside defensive end Nate Chandler will sometimes move into the DT spot, and he's probably been UCLA's best defensive lineman in the first two games.
Tony Dye.


Watch to see how Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough utilizes star strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers, specifically moving him to defensive end more often in this game to get pressure on Houston's quarterback.

Advantage: Houston. Houston's spread offense has been very effective in its first two games, albeit against weak defensive competition, with its passing game not missing a beat from last season. A big boost, though, has been Houston's running game, with the emergence of Beall. The Cougars love to spread you out, and make you have to cover the field, which takes defenders out of the box. Many times that leaves just 6 defenders in the box, and Houston will zone block and hand the ball off to Beall and allow him to pick his way through holes created by a mere lack of defenders.

Houston's passing game is based on quick, accurate throws, to receivers in short, precise routes. Keenum is very good at getting off the ball quickly, and his Three Amigos of receivers are excellent at finding quick separation.

But then the Cougars will go deep, trying to stretch out the coverage and, at the very least, perhaps get a pass interference call. Aaron Hester, UCLA's talented, young cornerback, has a penchant for holding and PI, so you can bet they're going to test him deep.

Generally their pass plays aren't slow developing, either quick strikes or streaks. This doesn't give the defense a great deal of time to put pressure on the quarterback. Blitzes are key against a spread like Houston's, since so often you have only three down linemen and five DBs in the game. It's the real, true vulnerability of the spread offense, since there isn't a tight end to help in pass blocking and often not even a tailback. If it's done well, and blitzes come from different parts of the field, it can harass a spread quarterback just enough to get him to hurry his throws and get him off his game. We'll see if UCLA can put together a good blitz package.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. HOUSTON'S DEFENSE

While the other match-up – between Houston's offense and UCLA's defense – might garner more attention, this is the one that could decide the game.

Why, you ask?

Well, Houston's defense isn't very good. Against either the pass or the run. And if you go by last season, and then the first two games this season, you could say they are particularly bad against the run, being ranked 115th in the country defending the run in 2009, and that was against Conference USA competition.

Texas State, which is a 1-AA team, gained 180 yards on the ground against them in the season opener.

And UCLA's clear offensive strength in its first two games has been running the ball. The theory is that, if UCLA can establish a run, hold onto the ball and not give it back to Houston's offense, that's easily UCLA's best defense. That's why this match-up could be the biggest decisive factor in the game.

To try to shore up its defense, Houston hired former Dallas Cowboy defensive coordinator Brian Stewart in the off-season. He brought in a 3-4 scheme, to at least try to give the Houston defense an element of surprise, since it's very unlikely they're going to match up man-by-man.

They were hoping that bringing in JC defensive tackle Matangi Tonga (6-2, 290) would help them up front, but he hasn't made a significant difference. For one thing, they wanted to originally use him at defensive end, but then they lost a projected starting DE to an ACL.
Linebacker Marcus McGraw (Getty).
After that, however, they weren't confident that sophomore Tyrone Campbell (6-1, 293) could hold down the nose tackle spot, so Tonga was moved back to NT and Campbell to defensive end. The other end is returning starter David Hunter (6-2, 295), who was a tackle last season.

With a lack of quickness up front, Houston relies heavily on its linebackers to make plays, particularly junior Marcus McGraw (6-0, 215). McGraw is in his third year as a starter, led the team in tackles last season and has so far in the first two games this season, averaging 8.5 per game. Last season he led Conference USA in tackles and ranked 5th nationally. He is quick, and is a very sure tackler.

Senior Matt Nicholson (6-2, 230) has been active, and JC transfer Sammy Brown (6-3, 240) is the guy expected to be a star. Returning starter, sophomore Phil Steward (6-2, 220), is considered solid, and has looked good so far this season. Coming off the bench has been freshman Efrem Oliphant (6-2, 215), who has played well.

The back four are a bit suspect. While Houston's pass defense wasn't great last season, they still had two reliable seniors, who they've now lost to graduation. The returning key player is cornerback Jamal Robinson (5-11, 190), who had five picks last year. They also return starting free safety Nick Saenz (6-1, 190), but have struggled to find another reliable cornerback. Senior Devin Mays (6-0, 180) beat out senior Loyce Means (5-11, 179) for the spot in fall. Then there is a new starter at strong safety in Roisean Haynes (5-11, 190). Freshman safety Kent Brooks (5-10, 200) has shown some moxy in the first two games.

UCLA's offense is coming off one of its worst performances in recent memory, and that's saying quite a bit.

Quarterback Kevin Prince, after looking like the real deal in the first few days of fall camp, then has been hindered by injuries since, and hasn't looked like a high-level quarterback in either of UCLA's first two games. This week was the first, he says, when he's been able to practice more or less healthy. He also said he's been pressing and is working on playing looser on Saturdays. In practice this week he definitely looked more like the Prince we saw in the first few days of August practice, but that might not mean much.

Darius Savage.
UCLA's running game figures to be a key in this game, and you'd expect Johnathan Franklin, who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and freshman Malcolm Jones, averaging 7.2 YPC, to find some running room. With Derrick Coleman sitting out, it's entirely likely that the other true freshman, Jordon James, will see some action. James provides the UCLA tailback position the shiftiness it doesn't necessarily get from either Franklin or Jones.

UCLA's offensive line has been the brightest spot in an otherwise dismal two weeks of the season so far. They have done a stellar job of opening up holes for their running backs, and providing projection for the quarterback. Senior Darius Savage, who at one point in his career didn't know if he'd be able to continue playing football due to a back injury, has been the biggest surprise of the season. He wasn't even slated to start until Kai Maiava, the starting center, went down in the fall scrimmage and guard Ryan Taylor had to move to center. This week, too, it appears that starting right tackle Micah Kia will be limited, so last year's starter at the position, Mike Harris, will step in, and many think that move is an upgrade anyway.

A bit of a neglected position in UCLA's first two games has been the F-back spot, but it might be by choice. Morrell Presley dropped the first two balls thrown to him and hasn't seen much action come his way since. With freshman Anthony Barr and senior Christian Ramirez nicked up, Damien Thigpen will probably return to the offensive side of the ball and get some time at the position, and he could offer an entirely new dimension with his speed.

Speaking of speed, there have been some complaints that the UCLA offensive coaches have been conservative in using their faster, quicker, but younger receivers so far in the first two games. But guys like Ricky Marvray, Randall Carroll and Josh Smith have been getting more work in practice, and it's expected that they'll see more opportunities in this game.

Advantage: UCLA. It's pretty crazy to pick UCLA's offense, but there are a number of factors contributing to it.

First, and foremost, Houston's defense is a poor one. Even though DC Stewart will try to scheme to make up for a lack of talent, it just can't be masked completely.

Secondly, UCLA's running game has been good, and it matches up with a very poor rushing defense that is grasping at straws to try to find a way to stop the run.

Thirdly, if you go back and closely watch the Stanford game, UCLA's offense sustained a number of drives but then shot itself in the foot near the redzone with penalties and turnovers.

Fourthly, we're betting that this is the week UCLA gets some production from its quarterback. If it's not Prince, perhaps Richard Brehaut, since Houston's pass defense isn't stellar.

The one thing Houston's defense does have going for it is the ability it's shown to create turnovers, and points from turnovers. If UCLA can keep itself from turning over the ball, it should be able to put up points.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Houston uses Edwards and Carrier as its punt and kick returners, and both are dangerous. Edwards returned a punt for 40 yards and looks like a threat every time he fields one. Carrier was one of the best kick-off returners in Conference USA last season.

It's difficult to get a bead on Houston's punter, freshman Richie Leone, since he's only punted twice, and didn't punt once against UTEP. Kicker Matt Hogan has only attemped two field goals and made both of them.

You get the feeling watching Josh Smith return kicks (and some punts) for UCLA that he's close to busting one. Houston has allowed one 50-yard punt return so far, and its punt coverage looked shaky.

Prediction

It's easy to see this game going one way – Houston's way. With or without Heisman candidate Keenum, Houston's offense is a force, and one the young and inexperienced UCLA defense can't keep under wraps. UCLA's defense has struggled in recent years to defend a spread, and this is the spread extraordinaire.

As we said above, UCLA's game plan should be to run the ball. It's the Bruins' offensive strength and Houston's defensive weakness, and it's going to be UCLA's best defense against Houston's offense – keeping it off the field. If UCLA can run, it will level the playing field, at least a bit.

Regardless if it's running the ball or passing, UCLA needs to keep possession, in more ways than one – it needs to literally hold onto the ball and not turn it over.

But then again, on the other hand, Houston doesn't need a great deal of time to score. In their season opener against Texas State, Houston's offense only possessed the ball for 7:21. In that time, it scored 48 points and seven touchdowns.

Even so, UCLA must keep the ball out of the hands of Houston's offense.

And even if that still happens, it should still be a high-scoring game. Everything is conducive for points: A cool night, the most prolific offense in the nation going against a suspect UCLA defense, and a Houston defense that is suspect itself.

Houston's offense will be brought back to Earth, actually playing a team from a legit BCS conference for only the third time in the last 17 games. So, while Houston's offense is definitely for real, just the mere fact that it's facing a defense, albeit UCLA's struggling one, with high-major D-1 athletes will make a difference. Well, it will make a difference between scoring 60 points and probably 35.

Since predicting wins in the last two games clearly worked against UCLA's mojo, we're doing the reverse mojo thing this week.

With 25 seconds left in the game, Houston will win it on a three-play, 80-yard drive.

Houston 35
UCLA 34



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