Game number two of the Houston Cougar football season literally can't be any worse than the first. (Barring a terrorist attack on Robertson Stadium.) Even if the Coogs stumble out of the gate and lose by multiple scores again, at least it will have been to a much better team this time around.
If the first game taught us anything, it's that trying to break down which team has an advantage in certain matchups can be irrelevant if one team shows up ready to play and the other does not. So we're going to tweak the idea a little bit this week, and simply look at the challenges facing the Cougars at each position.
Quarterbacks, like head coaches, usually get more than their fair share of credit and blame in both victories and defeats. David Piland has been no exception. You couldn't hardly blame the guy if he was pining for a road game, given the way the Houston "fans" have treated him. During his freshman season, every mistake he made lead to knuckleheads in the stands chanting for his now-departed backup. After Piland struggled in the season-opener, since apparently "Kohlhausen" is too difficult to chant effectively, the critics puffed themselves up as Internet tough guys and took to Twitter to criticize Piland directly, calling him "worthless", "terrible", and calling for him to be replaced at quarterback. Piland characteristically took the high road, sticking to his usual diet of Bible verse tweets, including, "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses."
Saturday will give us a good indication if Piland can be as good a quarterback as he is a patient and forgiving person. He's certainly not lowering his expectations in light of the season-opening loss, saying that the "execution problem" of week one "won't happen again", and declaring that the offense under new offensive coordinator Travis Bush will be "great" and "a lot of fun to watch".
Fortunately for Piland, much of the defense that stymied the Cougars for 40 minutes a year ago is gone. The Bulldogs have a pair of talented, experienced defensive tackles in Justin Ellis and Shakeil Lucas, but lose both top pass rushers off the end to graduation. Both starting linebackers (La Tech runs a 4-2-5 base defense), the team's two 100+ tacklers from a year ago, graduate as well. Those four departing starters take with them a combined 18 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.
Still, there's enough talent coming back that Piland will be facing a much more talented defensive attack than the one that gave him so much trouble last week.
The running backs didn't really struggle against Texas State; the real struggle related to the position was the coaching staff struggling to get them (particularly Charles Sims) enough touches. The Cougar running backs have a stiffer test coming for them Saturday against a Louisiana Tech team that allowed under 3.5 yards per carry a year ago, and as mentioned, the two big run-stuffers in the middle are back. Look for Sims, and freshmen Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, to get more touches in the passing game, and maybe on some runs off tackle to try and get them the ball in space, away from the big defensive tackles.
Houston's retooled, inexperienced receiving corps looked, well, inexperienced against Texas State. They didn't look comfortable in their routes, they dropped passes, and committed a fumble. This week they'll be facing a secondary that returns three senior starters. Everybody is hoping that the switch in offensive leadership will pay big dividends, but the receivers will have to be more consistently productive for that to happen.
While we're on the subject of consistent production, that's the name of the game for the offensive line, as well. Last week they had snaps where they paved big holes for Sims, snaps where they held long pockets for Piland, and snaps where they got inexplicably manhandled by an undersized Texas State pass rush. If the hogmollies can do a respectable job of keeping Ellis, Lucas, and high-motor defensive end IK Enemkpali out of the backfield, it will be a huge step forward.
The good news for the Cougars as they try to stop Louisiana Tech's running game: former Tennessee transfer Lennon Creer, who gashed Houston for 112 total yards last year, is gone. The bad news: pretty much everything else. The Bulldogs return four of five starters on the offensive line, and have impressive depth at running back, led by senior Ray Holley and sophomore Hunter Lee. Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes feels comfortable enough with the depth at the position that he's been giving both Lee and Holley some reps at the receiver position, just to keep his offense versatile.
The offensive line Houston will be going up against is a good one. Four of the five projected starters are seniors with starting experience, and four of the five projected starters weigh in at over 300 pounds. The Bulldogs run a four-wide spread offense, so getting some amount of pressure on quarterback Colby Cameron, and slowing down the running game enough that the secondary can focus on guarding four receivers rather than chasing after running backs, are steep challenges for the defensive line.
Head coach Tony Levine was actually quite complimentary of the play of linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews in the opener. The two combined for 28 tackles, including 7.5 for a loss. Conspicuously absent were any compliments for Everett Daniels, who struggled at times with the Bobcats' read-option offense. In addition to the aforementioned Lee-Holley running duo, the linebackers will have to contain Cameron, who isn't the most mobile of quarterbacks, but did scramble for 217 yards in six starts last year.
When asked at the Tony Levine Show on Wednesday, Houston's head man said there's a "very good" chance that the Cougars will mix up their defensive philosophies, and consider using more press coverage after Texas State repeatedly beat Houston on short out routes. Levine also noted that, from an execution standpoint, Houston's cornerbacks flat-out need to tackle better.
The secondary certainly has a much different challenge in front of it, facing LT's spread offense. Three of the Bulldogs' top four receivers from a year ago return, including 1,200-yard receiver Quinton Patton. Louisiana Tech also has the option of plugging in a fourth receiver with Division 1 starting experience, as they add Tulane transfer D.J. Banks.
The Cougars got a good look at Bulldog punter Ryan Allen a year ago, as his six punts went for an average of 47 yards, and three were downed inside the 20. Allen went on to win the Ray Guy award as the nation's top punter. While punters don't usually make game previews, Allen's NFL-caliber leg means that even if the Houston defense stops the Bulldog offense, it won't necessarily mean good field position for Piland and company.
The Bottom Line
The Cougars have a long way to go, and not a lot of time to get there if they're going to be competitive against Louisiana Tech on Saturday. The good news is that no matter what happened last week, the score still starts at 0-0 on Saturday. If you're looking for a potential X-factor, there are many. Will Louisiana Tech be a little rusty to open the season, after having their would-be opener postponed due to Hurricane Isaac? Will Houston be extra-motivated to make up for last week's embarrassing loss? Will the Bulldogs be extra-motivated to make up for last year's embarrassing loss to the Cougars? Will the home fans show up in full force, louder than ever, to try and will their team back to the level at which they expect them to play?
It's a well-worn truism that games aren't played on paper. This just happens to be one instance where even the paper doesn't know what the heck to expect. Other than that it won't be as bad as last week.