Houston Cougars (3-2, 2-0 C-USA) at Rice Owls (1-5, 0-2 C-USA)
Kickoff: 2:30 PM, 10/16/10
Things aren't looking great for the Cougar faithful. With Houston's top two quarterbacks out for the year, a quarterback controversy leaves a fan base divided. (Kevin Sumlin, the only one whose opinion matters, says David Piland is still the starter. I'd still like to see both utilized, but that's beside the point.) The defense is losing players to injury. And a couple of embarrassing losses to BCS foes (broken up only by a victory over Tulane) leave Houston short on confidence, and the Coogs' program-record home winning streak a thing of the past.
But across town, things aren't looking any better. The season looked promising after the first two weeks for the Owls, with a competitive loss to Texas-Austin, and a road win over North Texas. But since then, Rice has lost four straight games, including two conference tilts, and has seldom looked competitive.
So who needs this win more? Houston desperately needs a victory to make sure it doesn't lose the attention of the fan base it has tried so hard to finally win. A win leaves the Cougars in good position to compete for a Conference USA title. For Rice, there is a humiliating loss (73-14 at Robertson Stadium last season) to avenge, and the knowledge that a loss would leave the Owls 1-6, making it nearly impossible to earn a bowl bid.
Here's how things will play out:
Houston offense vs Rice defense
The Owls have surrendered at least 30 points in every game they've played so far this year. The run defense has been respectable, if not awe-inspiring, but it's the Owls' pass D which has really set them back. Opponents have completed 64% of passes against Rice, averaging better than 14 yards per completion. The Rice secondary has picked off just two passes.
When the run game couldn't get moving against Mississippi State, Sumlin and staff asked Piland to throw the ball 57 times in his first collegiate start. It'll be interesting to watch how hard the Coogs try to push the ball on the ground against the Owls, or if they simply choose to have Piland let it fly again, against the Owls' weaker unit. Piland will benefit from the return of James Cleveland, still the Coogs' leading receiver despite missing last week's game with a team suspension. If the Cougar receiving corps drops fewer passes than last week (it would be nearly impossible to drop more) Piland's production could really take off.
Rice offense vs Houston defense
It's been a while since the Owl defense wasn't awful, but the really disappointing aspect of this year for Rice has been the offensive production, or lack thereof. With an experienced QB returning in Nick Fanuzzi, and the transfer of playmaker Sam McGuffie, there was an expectation that the Owls might be at least somewhere close to the offensive production they enjoyed in the Clement-Dillard-Casey era. But the passing game has struggled. Fanuzzi has just four touchdowns against six interceptions, and McGuffie is averaging less than four yards per carry.
The bright spots for Rice are that three of Fanuzzi's four touchdown throws came last week against UTEP, a game in which he did not throw a pick. McGuffie, in addition to being the Owls' leading receiver, has started to get things going on the ground, with 177 yards over the last two games. Still, would you believe that McGuffie, the human highlight reel, doesn't have a rush of longer than 15 yards this year? McGuffie, and fellow running back Tyler Smith, will have a weakened Cougar front seven to go up against, as well, with defensive linemen Matangi Tonga and Radermon Scypion out with injuries.
The X-factor here could be whether or not the Houston defense can come up with some big plays, as the Owl offense has been susceptible to defensive playmakers thus far. Rice has been tackled for a loss a staggering 43 times through six games, thrown eight interceptions as a team, fumbled 11 times, and given up four defensive touchdowns.
True freshman Andy Erickson is one to keep your eyes on in the return game for the Owls. The Lake Travis alumnus returned two kicks for scores in a high school all-star game, and has averaged better than 10 yards per return on punts this year for Rice. Owl punter Kyle Martens can boom 'em, but can be run on. I have a hunch this may be the game a Cougar finally takes a punt or kickoff to the house. Kicker Chris Boswell has gotten a lot of work this year, and has been effective when called. He is 9-of-10 from 43 yards of less, and has a pair of 50-yarders to his name. One wonders if designated kick-blocker Wesley Scourten (who has gotten his hands on three kicks the last two weeks) will play a key roll on Saturday.
For the Coogs, Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards are always threats in the return game, punter Richie Leone is booming 'em, and kicker Matt Hogan is perfect inside of 40 yards, but 0-for-2 from beyond that mark.
This one scares me a little. Based on results so far this year, it shouldn't be close. But what if Houston's true freshman quarterback makes freshman mistakes, Bryce Beall can't entirely run over the Rice defense, injuries hurt the already vulnerable Cougar run defense and Sam McGuffie goes crazy? What if Houston looks a little less motivated than their Owl brethren, who have made no attempt to hide the fact that this is the biggest game of their season?
These are all entirely plausible scenarios. But I think that ultimately the Cougar pass attack will be too effective, and I'm sure coach Sumlin will remind his team what happened last time the Coogs marched across town as heavy favorites. It won't be 73-14, but the Cougars will pull one out.