With all the lofty expectations Houston's 2016 football campaign hasn't gone to plan. A team with playoff aspirations came out of the gates quickly with a win over Oklahoma and five straight wins. Then things fell apart with two losses in three weeks to Navy and SMU sandwiched between a near loss to Tulsa.
Now the 7-2 Cougars are back with a chance to retake some portion of the national spotlight with potential playoff participant Louisville and their Heisman frontrunner quarterback Lamar Jackson coming to town Thursday night. Win and Houston could vault back into the conversation for a New Years Six bowl or at least salvage their season.
A win could also rewrite the narrative on Houston's season, that most view as a disappointment. We disagree. Houston's on a pretty great run of dominant football. Tom Herman's built quite the war machine. They've come as close as anyone in the past two seasons to crashing the power five syndicate's playoff scheme. And they're uniquely talented in areas that should give Louisville problems.
Dominant Run Defense
The Cougars run defense is elite. The Cougars currently sit second in the NCAA at 2.76 yards allowed per carry. Who's first, you may have heard of them, Alabama. The Cougars allow 92.8 yards rushing, third in the NCAA behind Bama and San Diego State. Who knew San Diego State was such a juggernaut? Louisville, for all their Bobby Petrino passing goodness, relies on their run game to set the table. The Cardinals rank 9th in the NCAA in rushing yards per game at 270 and are first in average yards a carry 6.68.
The Cougars are great up front defensively with all everything freshman Ed Oliver defensive tackle and the return of Tyus Bowser at defensive end. Bowser missed five games after teammate Matthew Adams broke his orbital bone in a practice altercation. Bowser gave the Coogs a lift Saturday against Tulane with three sacks and three tackles for loss. Oliver's freakish athleticism and motor have made him a havoc play machine, accumulating a Texas FBS best 40 such plays. The front seven can make Louisville one dimensional and make Lamar Jackson beat them through the air.
Greg Ward Jr.
Quietly, Greg Ward Jr. is doing Greg Ward Jr. things. If he can play, Ward is no stranger to playing big in big games. We say if because Ward went out of last weeks game with a shoulder injury. His backup Kyle Postma broke his arm and Ward came back into the game to finish up, but he wasn't typical Greg Ward.
When his is typical Greg Ward, he's pretty good. This season he's completing 68% of his passes with sixteen touchdowns. Where Ward's different in 2016 is that he's not running as well. This season he's only averaging three yards per carry as opposed to 5.6 yards per carry last season.
Houston needs Ward to do what he's done in the past, play big in big games. The last two years Ward has thrown six touchdowns to just one pick and tacked on three rushing touchdowns in the Cougars three games against ranked opponents.
Another benefit for the Cougars is playing this game at TDECU on Thursday night. Louisville has a short week to prep for Tom Herman's offense and Todd Orlando's defense. Plus Louisville has to travel to what we hope will be a hostile environment. Coaches hate short weeks and they hate playing on the road in short weeks.
It's a big night for Houston, a night to put Houston back on the map to a New Years game and alter the narrative on the Cougars season.