The Houston Cougar football team has played better as the underdog in recent years. That being the case, they should play great on Saturday against UCLA; the list of factors stacked against them in the game is lengthy.
The last time that the Cougars traveled to the Rose Bowl, they were beaten up, both on the scoreboard and on the field. They face a powerful UCLA running attack that goes right up against Houston's biggest weakness. Their defensive coaching and execution have looked fatally flawed through two games. And the offense, even in racking up big yards and points against Louisiana Tech, was very one-dimensional, something that will have to be remedied to beat good teams like UCLA.
Let's take a look at the challenges facing the Cougars on each side of the ball.
Houston offense vs UCLA defense
The Cougar offense had a remarkable one-game turnaround between the Texas State and Louisiana Tech games, so at least it can be said that the Travis Bush era as offensive coordinator is off to a good start. Quarterback David Piland threw for 580 yards en route to setting an NCAA record for pass attempts in a game without an interception. The up-tempo offense that had been promised finally shone through, as the Coogs tied an NCAA record for offensive plays in a game.
The UCLA defense has held each of its first two opponents under 200 yards passing, but neither Rice nor Nebraska devotes itself to the pass as much as Houston, so Saturday's game will be a different test for the Bruin defense. Piland will have to look like the smooth operator he was in week two, not the scared underclassman he was in week one. But equally important is that Houston manages to accomplish something against UCLA that it didn't against Louisiana Tech - get the running game going. UCLA has a talented enough defense that if Houston stays completely one-dimensional on offense, they will be slowed down.
UCLA offense vs Houston defense
The Bruin offensive attack is led by freshman dual-threat QB Brett Hundley and senior running back Jonathan Franklin. Between Franklin's impressive 431 yards on over 10 yards per attempt through two games, and Hundley's 121 yards on the ground, UCLA is second in the country in rushing yards so far. Even more impressive, Hundley has been very successful throwing the ball in his first two collegiate games, completing 42-of-61 for 507 yards with six touchdowns and only one pick.
And yes, that fearsome offensive machine is going up against a defense that got beat on the same play four times in a row last game. Frankly, unless the Cougar D has the same type of one-game turnaround that the offense accomplished, things could get very ugly.
First and foremost, the Cougars need to have finally grasped the fundamentals of stopping the read option. It's been killing Houston for years, it killed Houston the first two games, and unless things have finally clicked, it'll kill them again on Saturday. Second, the Cougars need to have learned how to tackle fundamentally. The arm tackling that Louisiana Tech laughed while running through will absolutely continue to be the death of Houston until it's corrected. Finally, the Coogs need to make some big plays on the defensive side of the ball. They've forced just one turnover through the first two games, and that's just not going to cut it.
To try and facilitate some of these improvements, the Cougars have made some personnel changes this week, moving Colton Valencia and Trevon Stewart into starting roles in the secondary, and giving Joey Mbu the starting nod on the defenive line.
A lot needs to go right for Houston on Saturday for this game to stay close. Unless the defensive line shows up, the defensive coordinator learns how to make effective in-game adjustments, and the arm-tackling is solved, Hundley, Franklin and company are going to run the ball all over the Cougars. Hopefully head coach Tony Levine is as good at pumping up the Cougars to play the underdog role as was his predecessor.