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C-USA West Lead At Stake As Tulsa Comes To Town

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Tulsa Golden Hurricane (6-2, 3-2 Conference USA) at Houston Cougars (5-4, 4-2 C-USA)

Kickoff: 7:00 PM Central, 11/13/10

TV: CBS College Sports

Line: Houston by 2.5

When Houston dropped its game last Friday night to Central Florida, they knew that they had squandered that revered status that you hear talked about so often in sports - they were no longer in control of their own destiny. The loss was Houston's second in conference play, the other being the Rice loss which looms larger and feels more and more embarrassing with each passing week.

SMU had just one conference loss. Somebody would have to beat them for Houston to have a shot at the Conference USA title game. A day later, the Miners of UTEP did just that, scoring a 28-14 victory over the Mustangs.

So for the second straight week, the Cougars are at home, knowing that winning out means a chance at a conference title. Unfortunately, the level of competition isn't dropping by a whole lot. The Golden Hurricane of Tulsa have won three straight games, and five of their last six. Included in that winning streak is a 28-27 victory at Notre Dame.

The Houston-Tulsa match-up is turning into a budding conference rivalry. TU head coach Todd Graham went so far as to say this week, "If we have a rival, it's Houston." While UH students could probably name half a dozen schools they have more interest in beating than Tulsa (most of whom have no interest in scheduling the Cougars), given the schools' recent history, it's hard to deny Graham's statement.

In 2007, the Cougars traveled to Tulsa with a 5-1 conference record, and high expectations. UH scored a garbage touchdown to avoid the shutout, falling by a humiliating final of 56-7. The next year, the Cougars returned the favor at Robertson Stadium, slapping TU around to the tune of 70-30.

A year ago, neither team would run away with the game, but Tulsa held an 8-point lead in the closing minutes. Houston got in the end zone, but Case Keenum was sacked on the two-point conversion. All looked lost until the Cougars recovered the onside kick and moved the ball far enough down field to set up then-walk-on kicker Matt Hogan with a 51-yard field goal.

Pandemonium ensued.

While all that back-story may serve as motivation for one or both squads, the score, as they tell you, will still be 0-0 at opening kickoff. Here's the scoop on how it may play out:

Tulsa offense vs Houston defense

I won't go so far as to call it gimmicky, but under Todd Graham, Tulsa has put a number of wrinkles into their offense. You can always expect to see something new when you watch them play. Much like Houston with its screen passes, the focus is on getting the ball in the hands of the offensive playmakers in space. Key among said playmakers is Damaris Johnson. The 5'8" receiver leads the team in receiving, is second in rushing, and is the primary return man. He is responsible for nine touchdowns on the season - four receiving, three rushing, one kick return, and one punt return. Quite simply, he's a threat every time he touches the ball.

Quarterback G.J. Kinne can also hurt you in a number of ways. He is completing 60% of his passes, with a 20-6 TD-INT ratio. He has also rushed for 441 positive yards (before you take out the 129 he has lost on sacks and the like) and has four scores on the ground. The Cougars have had trouble controlling the pocket this year, as was exposed by UCF QB Jeffrey Godfrey last week, so Kinne will provide another test in that area.

So if the Cougars can slow down Johnson and Kinne, all they have to worry about is a pair of running backs in Alex Singleton and Ja'Terian Douglas who are averaging 4.8 and 8.3 yards per carry, respectively. And all-purpose threat Charles Clay. And the host of other capable receivers Tulsa can throw out there.

All this without senior leader Matt Nicholson, whose recent injury ended his season.

The good news it that Houston had a couple of decent defensive weeks in a row before running into the buzzsaw that is UCF. The bad news is that Tulsa's offense is as good as the Knights'. The Cougar secondary has had some good games, the front seven has had some good games (Knights not named Godfrey actually rushed for just 3.7 yards per carry on Friday), but unless it all comes together on Saturday, Tulsa will put up points in bunches.

Houston offense vs Tulsa defense

Here's the real good news - Tulsa's defense is worlds and worlds worse than the one that Houston put up 532 yards against last week. The TU pass defense ranks dead last among Division 1-A schools, surrendering a whopping 318 yards per game through the air. And in the last three weeks, Houston has put up 45 points on SMU (the highest total they've surrendered this year), 56 on Memphis (the highest total they've surrendered this year) and 33 on UCF (the second-highest total they've surrendered this year).

Tulsa's defense is better up front. They are holding opponents under four yards per carry. Still, given how effective Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes have been rushing the ball of late, one imagines that the Cougars won't be content to simply air it out every time.

However, the key to the Houston offense remains the ever-increasing accuracy of quarterback David Piland. In the last three games, the true freshman has completed 66-of-99 passes for 10 scores and just two picks. He has looked more and more comfortable throwing the ball down the field, preventing the opposition from completely stacking up against the screen pass. This, in turn, has opened things up more for the screens when they do inevitably come.

Oh, and Piland has taken just two sacks against 201 pass attempts on the year. He has the kind of pocket awareness you just can't teach, and that you just don't see in true freshmen.

As Piland has asserted himself, it has become more and more clear who his favorite target is, with Patrick Edwards emerging as the leader among an array of talented receivers. After catching just one touchdown pass in the first four games of the season, Edwards has ten scores in Piland's five starts, not to mention an average of over 100 receiving yards per game.

The Bottom Line

Both teams have a long list of offensive playmakers. Both teams can hurt you in the return game. Both teams have everything in the world to play for on Saturday. Make no mistake, points will abound on Saturday. The million dollar question is, which team will come up with a few more stops on defense? It scares me to death to predict this game either way, but my gut tells me that the Houston's defense will get at least one more stop than Tulsa's.

Houston 49

Tulsa 42

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.