We're legitimately excited for this one, Houston travels to UTSA in the season opener for both schools. By December both schools could have nine or more wins. Here are the game keys for both and a few key numbers.
Get out early
Expect the Dome to be rocking as Houston comes in. 40,000 in the Alamodome sounds a lot louder than 40,000 in most places. The Cougars represent a big time scalp for Frank Wilson's program, and UTSA will come out to make a quick impression. The Coogs can squelch that by firing out of the block quickly and taking the crowd out.
Establish the Run
If you want to point to one area where Houston fell off regarding production last year it was in the run game. Houston managed half the rushing yards compared to their 2015 totals. Dual threat Greg Ward is gone and with him, Houston's most reliable rushing threat. The Cougars will be more conventional in the run game this season with Kyle Allen at quarterback. Defenses will no longer have to split their focus between a running quarterback and the running back. Look for Patrick Carr, Duke Catallon, and Dillon Birden to rotate carries, one or more of them need to get off.
We've been quite public with our concern over new defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. He was in such high demand last season that he apparently coached a youth rec league team. At Miami D'Onofrio managed just one top 50 defense. In his career as a DC, at Temple and the U, he's fielded a top 50 defense just twice. Miami alums and player complained about his less-than aggressive approach.
No one complained about Todd Orlando's approach. Orlando's aggressive defenses became the hallmark of Tom Herman's tenure at Houston. D'Onofrio promises to bring the same type of pressure, but we're skeptical. Houston possesses great defensive talent at each level, for the Cougars to continue their trajectory and more importantly to win on Saturday, they need to set those athletes lose.
UTSA's offense typically enjoys its greatest success when there is a symbiotic relationship between the run and the pass. When UTSA does both well, watch out, they can compete with almost anyone. Against Houston, that means running into the teeth of Houston's defense, specifically Ed Oliver and Matthew Adams. Houston's dynamic athletes might be better attacked straight on, rather than around the edge that showcases the Cougar's speed. Make Houston defend the run and safeties close down towards the line of scrimmage, opening up green grass for UTSA's talented receivers.
If UTSA can keep Houston's defense honest, they'll be in the game in the fourth quarter.
Win or tie the Turnover Battle
Turnovers are chum for the Cougars and lead to feeding frenzies. If UTSA can turn that tide or at least negate it, they neutralize a key chip. In wins the last two seasons the Cougars finished plus 28 in turnover margin. Houston was minus 14 in losses.
Good Dalton Sturm
We've written a lot about the Jekyll and Hyde performances of Dalton Sturm. There are games where Sturm looks like an elite quarterback; then there are outings when he looks lost. There isn't much in between. Sturm is a dynamic threat at quarterback, capable of making any throw on the white board and an explosive athlete to boot. If that Dalton Sturm plays Saturday night, UTSA has a great chance at a signature win.
Houston defense ranked 2nd in the FBS in yards allowed per rush at 2.92, just behind Alabama.
Dalton Sturm completed 63% of pass in wins, however in losses that number dropped to 51%. From August thru October Sturm's completion percentage was 61%. In November and December it dropped to 49%.
Linell Bonner caught the fifth most passes in the FBS last season (98) and caught 73% of passes thrown to him.
Linebacker Josiah Tauaefa set a UTSA record for tackles last season and ranked 24th nationally.
Ed Oliver ranked second in the FBS in tackles for loss (23) in 2016. He defended nine passes last season, ranking second on the team. Oh, and he plays defensive tackle.