Who would’ve thought that the conference opener against Tulane would carry such weight for Dana Holgorsen and the Houston Cougars? But, here we are, after a tight loss to Washington State and with a 1-2 record, Thursday night in New Orleans is HUGE for the path the Coogs take in 2019.
Holgorsen hasn’t been shy about enlightening us to the shortcomings of the roster Major Applewhite left him. He’s been critical of the previous regime’s schemes, effort demands, injury policies, and redshirt mistakes. At some point, the program Holgorsen so deeply coveted must become his and the “mistakes” of the past ignored or at least forgotten so the Cougars can focus on 2019.
2019, of course, started with a difficult trip for a front-row seat to Jalen Hurts arrival as the next great Oklahoma quarterback, followed with a curiously hollow win over Prairie View A&M. After Friday night’s controversially officiated game at NRG and another up and down offensive performance, the Coogs are starving for a dominant offensive performance. Kendal Briles gave Houston fans those Saturday afternoons more often than not, regardless of the failings of the defense.
Quarterback D’Eriq King hasn’t adapted to Holgorsen’s offense. He’s completing a career-low percentage of his passes, for 130 yards less per game and lacking the electricity that made him a dark-horse Heisman candidate in 2018. And while Marquez Stevenson is turning into a go-to receiver, the Cougars are still searching for another pass catcher to step up.
Houston’s defense was targeted to struggle this year. Ed Oliver, Isaiah Johnson, Garrett Davis, Austin Robinson, Roman Brown, and Emeke Egbule all graduated or declared for the draft. Not that 2018’s defense was much to write home about, but Houston’s recruiting efforts failed to replace departed athletes with a similar caliber of athlete. Holgorsen turned to the transfer portal, the discount/opened item row of the college football landscape and brought in a slew of newcomers to fill the void. They haven’t panned out, yet. The Coogs are 122nd in total defense, downright D’Onofrio-like.
Houston, once the home of defensive athletes that made the P5s envious, now have too few rangy, speedsters, and as a result, Joe Cauthen’s attacking defense lacks horsepower. Against Oklahoma and Wazzou the Cougars allowed third-down conversions 44% of the time and nearly 400 yards in the air alone.
That’s the Houston team getting on a flight to Louis Armstrong later this week.
The team that boards the return on Thursday night and the plays the rest of the season will depend in large part on what happens in the Big Easy. Tulane lived up to that moniker for most of its previous AAC seasons, but Willie Fritz has ushered in an era where the Cougar/Green Wave could turn into a bloodletting.
This year Fritz’ squad is 2-1, it’s one loss coming in a “closer than the score indicates” game at Auburn. Tulane is a top 20 rushing team with a defense that gives up just 14 points a game. Tulane doesn’t exactly light it up through the air, but they rank 106th in passing offense compared with Houston’s 120th.
Tulane, like Houston, believes they can win the Western Division of the AAC and this game starts that push; a critical springboard or trap door dependent on the outcome. After Houston, the Green Wave travel to Army, get UConn at home, then a showdown at Memphis. Sitting 2-0 in AAC play as they go to the Liberty Bowl is a must. Thursday night’s a pretty big deal for Fritz’ team as well.
Back to Houston, even if this team can’t replicate the dynamic performances we became so accustomed to last year, they need to learn to grind out wins with the significant offensive talent on-hand. If that means focusing on the run-game with Kyle Porter and King, and the occasional Stevenson highlight reel, so be it. The rushing attack is ahead of 2018’s numbers through three games, and Houston ran the ball well last season.
Thursday night is a crossroad event for Holgorsen’s first Houston team. If they can “find” themselves on the road and come home with a win, the AAC is still there for the taking. If they can’t, the issues apparent through three games could burden this team through the rest of the season.