Know the Foe: The Houston Cougars

Bob Levey

The undefeated Cougars of Houston will host the Cougars of BYU this weekend. Does Houston have what it takes to remain perfect on the season?

The Houston Cougars (5-0) will face the BYU Cougars (4-2) in the first ever match-up between these two programs. The game will be hosted by Houston at Reliant Stadium in Texas. Seeing as this is the first time BYU has faced this foe, lets take a closer look at the Houston football program.

Overview

The Houston Cougars played their last 17 seasons in Conference USA before being invited to participate in American Athletic Conference, effective this year. The AAC was formerly recognized as the Big East. Since fielding their first football team in 1946, Houston has participated in an impressive 21 bowl games. Through the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Houston was a household name in the college football world, as they consistently finished with a Top 25 ranking during those years. The program has once again picked up steam in recent years, as they have participated in a bowl game in seven of the last nine seasons. Perhaps their most successful season in program history came in 2011, when they finished the year with a 13-1 record capped by a bowl game victory over Penn State.

The Cougars are hoping to participate in their first ever BCS Bowl game this season. Although winning their conference outright would send them to a BCS game, the Cougars are undoubtedly looking to keep their record unblemished as they face their first real test of the season in BYU (no offense to the Southern Jaguars, Temple Owls, Rice Owls, UTSA Roadrunners, or Memphis Tigers). Do the Cougars of Houston have what it takes to keep their undefeated season alive against the Cougars of BYU? Lets break down the offense.

Offensive Analysis

John O’Korn, a true freshman quarterback from Florida, is the leader of the Houston offense. O’Korn has had a rather impressive freshman season, as he comes into the BYU game on Saturday with a 60% completion rate (86/145) and 1,131 passing yards. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes while giving away just one interception. Look for O’Korn to test the BYU secondary early and often, as they are a team that is not afraid to pass the ball. David Piland was also getting a fair amount of reps at the quarterback position this season (21-40 for 220 yards), before announcing his retirement from football last week due to multiple concussions.

Sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry is by far O’Korns favorite target. Greenberry has 39 receptions on the season for 606 yards - an average of 15.5 yards per reception. The BYU secondary will have its work cut out as they game plan for the O’Korn - Greenberry duo. The BYU defense hasn’t been tested through the air since playing the Utes last month, as Craig Harrison of Utah State was thrown into the fire unexpectedly and has proven less than impressive, Logan Kilgore is solid (but still, its MTSU), and Vad Lee isn’t known for a deadly arm, as he is a run-first quarterback.

When Houston does keep the ball on the ground, watch for sophomore running back Ryan Jackson to take the majority of the reps. Jackson is averaging a solid 5.1 yards per carry on 76 attempts this season. He leads the team in rushing with 391 yards, as well as four touchdowns. Kenneth Farrow has also been a big help to the Houston rushing attack, as he has pounded his way to 208 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 4.7 ypc.

Overall, Houston tends to lean towards the passing game more often than the run, as they have posted a total of 1,439 passing yards on the season, compared to just 944 rushing yards. But as we can see from some of these stats, they have proven they can be efficient in either category. The Houston offense ranks 28th in the country, which is the highest ranked offense that BYU has faced to date--keep Houston’s strength of schedule in mind (ranked as the 86th toughest).

**If you want to see a preview of O'Korn, Greenberry, Jackson, and Farrow in action, here are the highlights of Houston's offense vs the Southern Jaguars earlier this season:

Defensive Analysis

While Houston is usually known for its offensive success, this year’s Houston defense has as much to do with the Cougars 5-0 start as the offense does.

In his first season as defensive coordinator, David Gibbs has done an excellent job of implementing his aggressive defensive strategy. Houston leads the nation in the turnover margin at plus 14. Houston has forced 18 turnovers this year while turning the ball over just four times. Last week alone, they were able to force four turnovers (all fumbles) against Memphis. Winning the turnover margin has been a struggle for BYU this year.

Houston’s defense is giving up an average of just 19 points per game, and has gotten better every week. They have allowed only three touchdowns in the second half all season long. Last week, Houston kept Memphis out of the end zone all game long, forcing them to kick five field goals. Considering BYU’s red zone struggles at times this season, we could see our Cougar special teams putting up more points than our quarterback (hopefully not though).

There are a couple of players on the defensive side of the ball to watch for. Leading an impressive linebacker corps is junior Derrick Matthews. Matthews had the game of his career last week, as he recorded two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and 10 tackles. He leads the team on tackles this year with 49. He has also been disruptive in the passing game, recording several pass deflections. Watch for the other linebacker, Efrem Oliphant, as well. Oliphant has 42 tackles on the season and has been pivotal for the Cougars in stopping rushing attacks.

What are Houston’s expectations this season?

There is no doubt in Houston that the goal is a BCS Bowl appearance. In their first year as members of a BCS Conference, all they need to do is win their conference in order to accomplish this goal. This means that a loss to BYU doesn’t kill their chances at a BCS Bowl, as would’ve been the case in years past. Houston has taken care of business in-conference thus far with a 2-0 record in the AAC. But with tough matchups with Rutgers, Louisville, and Cincinnati looming in the coming weeks, their toughest stretch of the schedule lies ahead of them. This game against BYU may set the tone for the remainder of their season. Currently sitting at 5-0, look for Houston to finish the season 10-2.

How do they match up with BYU?

It’s difficult to accurately calculate how good (or bad) Houston is so far this season, simply because they have played one of the softest schedules in the country. It is becoming easier, however, to gauge BYU this year as they have played a bigger variety of opponents. BYU has faced its share of difficult teams (Texas, Utah), average teams (Utah State [due to their quarterbacks untimely injury in the first quarter], Georgia Tech), and softer teams (Virginia, MTSU).

For Houston to win:

They will need to test the BYU secondary over the course of the game. If the Houston offensive line can control the line of scrimmage giving O’Korn enough time to find targets such as Greenberry, then Houston will probably be able to put some points on the board by going over the top of the strong front seven of BYU.

If Houston fails to establish the passing game, and is forced to go through BYU’s front seven rather than over the top of them, this would neutralize Houston’s strength and could lead to a low scoring affair.

For BYU to win:

First and foremost, BYU needs to win the turnover battle. This could be a challenge against a team that leads the nation in forcing turnovers. In addition to protecting the ball, Taysom Hill will need to continue his recent improvement if BYU wants to be able to score on this Houston defense. Kyle Van Noy and the BYU front seven will need to quickly put pressure on the quarterback. They can’t allow him to sit comfortably in the pocket and pick apart BYU’s secondary.

No matter the outcome, this game should be a close one and entertaining to watch. This would be the first close game for BYU since their loss to Utah last month, and would be Houston’s first close game of the season. It would be interesting to see how each of these teams perform in a close battle deep in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: BYU Cougars: 31, Cougars: 17

The game is a road game @ 1:30 pm MDT. You can watch it on ESPNEWS

Give us your thoughts, analysis, and predictions for the game.

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