FACTS & STATS: Site: Robertson Stadium (32,000) -- Houston, Texas. Television: CBSCSN. Home Record: ECU 1-2, Houston 2-0. Away Record: ECU 0-0, Houston 3-0. Neutral Record: ECU 0-1, Houston 0-0. Conference Record: ECU 1-0, Houston 1-0. Series Record: East Carolina leads, 6-4.
Houston is off to a 5-0 start, with three of those wins coming on the road. This contest marks the start of a key three-game homestand for the Cougars, who finished 5-7 a year ago despite some key injuries. UH opened its C-USA schedule last Thursday at UTEP and came away with a 49-42 victory.
Meanwhile, East Carolina is hoping to get back into the win column following last Saturday's 35-20 mistake-filled setback to North Carolina. The Pirates' only win so far this season came a week earlier against UAB, which also got the team off to a 1-0 start in league play. Beginning this week, the Pirates will play their next three games on the road.
East Carolina leads the all-time series with Houston, 6-4, and that includes a 38-32 home win over the Cougars when the teams last met in 2009.
The Pirate offense had an absolutely miserable opening 30 minutes against North Carolina last time out, as their first-half possessions resulted in two punts, two fumbles, two interceptions and a field goal. While the offense was eventually able to get something going in the second half, the damage had already been done as UNC scored 14 points off those turnovers. That ugly first half forced the offense to air it out after halftime, and quarterback Dominique Davis finished with a school-record 417 yards on 41-of-58 passing. He broke David Garrard's record of 414 yards set in 1998, and also became the first player in school history to produce multiple 400-yard passing games. Lance Lewis and Justin Hardy caught 10 passes apiece, with Lewis notching a game-high 166 receiving yards and a score.
ECU's defense gave up touchdowns on four consecutive drives in the first half, and the Pirates were never able to dig their way out of a 28-3 hole. The good news is that the defense showed improvement the rest of the way, allowing only one touchdown over UNC's final six drives. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Grove had another solid outing with 13 tackles, matching his season average. He is the first East Carolina player to amass 10 or more stops in the first four games of a season since Pernell Griffin in 2001. Grove paces the squad with 52 tackles on the season, which also leads the conference. Sophomore inside linebacker Kyle Tudor added five tackles in his season debut after returning from injury. His presence could give a boost to a unit that ranks 100th nationally in scoring defense (32.8 ppg), although that number is skewed a bit as a result of a season-opening 56-37 loss to South Carolina. In general, the Pirates have not generated many big plays as they have notched only four sacks on the year, while Damon Magazu is credited with the team's only two interceptions.
Houston's offense is centered around talented senior quarterback Case Keenum, who took a redshirt after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Now healthy, Keenum is eyeing a third season of over 5,000 passing yards and 40- plus touchdowns. He is off to a fine start, having thrown for 2,005 yards and 14 touchdowns with only two interceptions. Keenum is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes (.697) and is averaging 401 yards per tilt. Four different receivers have already notched at least 20 catches on the year, while E.J. Smith is close with 18. In last week's win over UTEP, Keenum completed 30-of-46 passes for 471 yards and two touchdowns, while Charles Sims ran for 111 yards and added an 84-yard TD grab. Sims has been part of a backfield trio with Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall that is averaging a healthy 151.4 yards per game, alleviating some of the pressure on Keenum.
If the Cougars are to remain unbeaten, the defense must do a better job of closing out games. Every time UH seemed poised to take control last week, the Miners would answer with a score of their own to keep things tight. The Cougars surrendered a 68-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to cut the deficit to three. Then, with 6:21 to play in the fourth quarter, UTEP cut it to seven after a seven-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. The Miners had a chance to tie it or take the lead at the end of regulation, but they could not connect on a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 54 seconds left. UTEP racked up 30 first downs and 538 yards of total offense for the game, but that paled in comparison to UH's 710 total yards. The Cougars need to step up their red-zone defense after allowing UTEP to score touchdowns on three of its four trips to the red zone. On the season, opponents have scored on 17-of-21 red- zone chances (81 percent), with 15 of those scores resulting in touchdowns.
The ECU offense has been rather inconsistent this season, but as the unit showed in the second half last week, it is capable of scoring points in bunches. Unfortunately, so can Houston. The Cougars' shaky defense is destined to get burned at some point if they can't tighten things up, but that isn't likely to happen at home against the Pirates.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Houston 52, East Carolina 34
Saturday, October 8th, 7:00 p.m. (et).