Storylines abound in today's game against Houston-- the Bulls played the Cougars about a year ago in an exciting matchup between two promising freshman quarterbacks, Mike White and John O'Korn... both of whom have been benched. Now the Cougars need this game to stay in the race for an AAC title, and the Bulls need it to keep the pipe dream of bowl eligibility alive. Sean Alder, the sports editor at the University of Houston student newspaper, The Daily Cougar, was kind enough to answer some questions about this afternoon's matchup for us.
1. The Cougars' season turned a corner of sorts when they replaced John O'Korn with the more mobile Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback. What does Ward bring to the position that O'Korn didn't? Do Houston fans see him as the long-term solution at QB?
SA: I think that's exactly what he brings to the position, mobility. I feel as though Ward does a better job of getting out of the pocket when it breaks down and he's very strong at throwing the ball on the run. Ward has been very elusive the past couple of games and at multiple moments in every game that he's had time at quarterback, you'll see him make a run where he dodges and breaks tackles all over the place.
2. Even with the change, the Cougars are just 80th in the nation in points per game. We're used to Houston slinging the ball all over the field and scoring at will-- what's different this season?
SA: The difference with the offense this year is that they've taken a priority of keeping the ball on the ground for the most part. With two very strong running backs in Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, in addition to Ward at quarterback, the Cougars have taken to a fast-paced game plan. With the defense forcing so many turnovers, the offense has had more time on the field and they do a good job of tiring out their opponents.
3. You don't usually see teams excel at forcing turnovers on a yearly basis, but it's become a trademark for the Houston D under Tony Levine. What's the Cougars' secret there?
SA: I don't know if it's as much of a secret as it is just pure talent. The Cougar defense is filled with athletes who rarely make mistakes and I think that's just something Levine has really stressed in the past weeks. In the first half of the season, the Cougars have racked up more penalties than Levine is really comfortable with, so I think the team goes out a little more conscious of the way they play every game.
4. The young USF defense has gotten torches a couple weeks in a row now. How do you think Houston's going to attack this defense? Do the Bulls have any chance of containing Ward and Deontay Greenberry?
SA: The team has come out guns blazing in the past couple of weeks and I don't expect things to be any different against USF. I think that the Cougars will start with a heavy run game and try and wear out the Bulls' defense and once USF starts to figure out how to stop the run, Ward can start getting the ball to his receivers who can turn a short pass into a monster gain. I think the only way that the Bulls can consistently stop the Cougars is if they can match their pace through the entire game and not get comfortable at any point.
5. With the USF quarterback situation still murky, it's a solid bet that Houston is going to see a heavy dose of Marlon Mack tomorrow. How does the Houston D stack up against the power running game?
SA: Houston's defense is getting back on track when it comes to forcing turnovers, but they get more interceptions than fumbles. The Cougars have done well with making teams go three and out in recent games and are very good at forcing the punt, so if they can keep the Bulls from getting more than a couple yards per carry and make it hard to convert on third down, everything else will fall into place for the Houston defense.
6. It's still early, of course, but at 2-1 in the AAC the Cougars are still alive for a conference title, and they have the benefit of avoiding ECU. With a not-so-frightening stretch of USF, Tulane, Tulsa and SMU ahead, does this team have what it takes to run the table and challenge for an AAC title?
SA: I definitely think this team can make a title run. If the Cougars continue to make plays on offense with minimal mistakes and keep up the strong defensive play while cutting down on penalties, the team can make it all the way. Levine has done a very good job of keeping the players focused on short term goals as opposed to end of season goals and I think it has really helped keep the players from making mistakes and poor decisions during the game.
7. Prediction for the game?
SA: I think that the Cougars will be 3-1 going into the homecoming game next week. I think that the bye week has really helped the team considering a few players were fighting with minor injuries and the coaching staff fixed the little things the team has been dealing with like penalties and miscommunications on offense. I personally think the Cougars will win this by two touchdowns, I'll say 28-14.