GAME NOTES: The Houston Cougars begin life without their star quarterback this weekend as they welcome the Tulane Green Wave to Robertson Stadium for a Conference USA showdown.
In line to potentially break numerous NCAA passing records, Houston's Case Keenum was one of the players to watch this season, until that season was cut short by a torn ACL last Saturday night versus UCLA in a 31-13 loss on the road. Despite appearing in just three games in 2010, Keenum was already in the NCAA's top-10 in several categories including passing yards (13,586) and passing touchdowns (107).
Even more bad news for the Cougars, who are now 2-1 and have fallen out of the national rankings, is that backup signal-caller Cotton Turner has also seen his 2010 campaign cut short by a fractured clavicle.
Meanwhile, the Green Wave are getting back onto the gridiron following a week off. The squad slipped by Southeastern Louisiana in the season opener, 27-21, a few weeks ago but then bowed to Ole Miss in the Superdome on September 11th by a final of 27-13. This game marks the team's first road test of the season, with a trip to Rutgers coming up the first weekend of October as well.
As for the all-time series between these two teams, Houston is ahead by a count of 11-4 after posting a 44-16 win in leas year's meeting in New Orleans. The Cougars have taken care of Tulane in seven consecutive battles.
The offense for the Green Wave is driven by aptly-named running back Orleans Darkwa who has turned his 25 carries and 128 yards on the ground into four touchdowns for the program. While that's great news for him, it also means that no one else on the roster has made a trip into the end zone through two games. Quarterback Ryan Griffin has managed to convert 67.9 percent of his pass attempts thus far for 332 yards, with D.J. Banks being one of the prime targets down the field with his 13 catches for 150 yards. Casey Robottom also has 13 receptions for the squad, but his grabs have resulted in only 89 yards. Despite the efforts of Darkwa, Tulane's running game ranks 10th in the conference and 100th in the nation at this stage with a mere 108.5 ypg, the offense overall coming in at 111th in the country with an average of 282 ypg which places it last in C-USA heading into the fourth week of action.
Last year, the Tulane defense was one of the worst in not only Conference USA, but also the nation as it gave up a whopping 36.7 ppg to place 115th among the members of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Things are a little better right now with the group permitting just 24 ppg, but the Green Wave has yet to square off against any of the heavy hitters in the league. Through the first two games of the season, Trent Mackey has seemingly hit everything that moves, coming up with 27 total tackles, his 15 solo stops more than all but two of his teammates have total takedowns thus far. Mackey also leads the team with three tackles for loss and has one of their three forced fumbles. Somewhat disappointing is the squad's mere 1.5 sacks per game, placing them 10th in the conference and 83rd in the country right now. Another area that could use some attention is the pass defense which currently ranks 99th in the nation with an efficiency rating of 145.37.
Getting knocked out of the top-25 was one thing, but to watch both Keenum and Turner go down with season-ending injuries last weekend was too much to bear for the Houston faithful. Keenum, who threw for more than 5,000 yards and led the NCAA in total offense the last two seasons, was injured when trying to make a tackle following one of the interceptions he delivered. After Turner went to the locker room with his injury head coach Kevin Sumlin was forced to bring in redshirt quarterback Terrance Broadway who eventually led the Cougars to their first touchdown of the night. Clearly the depth chart at the quarterback position will have to be heavily scrutinized this week in order to give the Cougars the best chance to compete, but it won't be easy as coach Sumlin deals with inexperience at the position. With all of that uncertainty under center, seeing running backs Bryce Beall (five TDs) and Michael Hayes (four) get their hands on the ball more often is almost a given.
Against a desperate UCLA squad that had opened the season with a couple of setbacks, the Cougars fought an uphill battle as the offense sputtered and the defense tried to maintain respectability. The group did hold the Bruins scoreless in the fourth quarter, but that was only after the home team registered 31 straight points in the rout. The run defense was touched for 266 yards and four touchdowns, so perhaps the pass defense giving up only 99 yards and picking off a Kevin Prince pass wasn't all that impressive. With the offense being revamped it will be the defense that will have to step up and take some of the hits for the Cougars until further notice and that's where a guy like Marcus McGraw comes in after leading the group in total tackles (23) and coming up with two forced fumbles and a couple of recoveries for Houston. Matt Nicholson will also be asked to continue his strong play with a couple of fumble recoveries and an interception through three games.
Perhaps the element of surprise at quarterback could be enough to get the Cougars back into the win column, but revamping the offense to fit a new set of skills won't be an easy task and there will be some growing pains for the program.