The guys from the Houston sports-themed Scott & Holman Pawdcast were kind enough to answer some questions about UConn’s upcoming matchup with the No. 6 team in the country.
1. Against the two strong opponents Houston has faced (Sorry, Lamar and Texas State), both have been able to keep it close in the first half before seemingly getting blown out in the second half. Do you see this as a trend, or just a random sample from two games? How was Cincinnati able to keep the game close in the first half?
Sam: It’s hard to look at 2 games and really glean much in terms of trends. But I do think it’s fair to say that the Coogs are a better team in the second half rather than the first. Herman is generally effusive about his assistants, like most college coaches, but reserves special praise for the S&C coach Yancy McKnight (previously of Iowa State and Rice). Looking at how the Coogs pulled away late from Oklahoma and Cincy, clearly the S&C program in year two has made this team very difficult to beat later in games.
Specifically with Cincy, they did an excellent job pressuring Greg Ward Jr. and the offensive line play, especially at the Guard spots, was extremely poor early. The run game really didn’t get going until the 4th quarter and after some personnel changes (Marcus Oliver at RG helped). The Bearcats got 3 turnovers: 2 Ward interceptions and a bizarre fumble by Isaiah Johnson that almost turned into a Cincy TD. All of these occurred deep in Bearcat territory. The Coogs also committed lots of inopportune penalties. This is a blueprint the Huskies can certainly follow, though I don’t think Diaco/Pointdexter will blitz as often as Cincy did.
In some ways the crazy last quarter of the Cincy game was the large yardage – and in my opinion talent – discrepancy correcting itself to the tune of 28 straight points. The Coogs stopped shooting themselves in the foot and not surprisingly started scoring.
2. In last season's game, Arkeel Newsome ran for 114 yards on 32 carries. However this season, Houston's run defense has been other-worldly, giving up just 37.0 yards-per-game. What are they doing that's so successful, and should UConn even try to run the ball?
Dustin: The run defense didn’t have its best game last year against UConn, but it definitely got stronger as the year went on, as evidenced by the absolute blanking of Dalvin Cook in the Peach Bowl. This year, most of the front seven returned, and freshman all-world recruit Ed Oliver has been everything that UH had hoped for and more in the middle of the defensive line. Nobody, including Oklahoma, has been able to block him, and I give a lot of the credit to him (as well as the continued development of all the returning starters) for taking UH from a very good run-stopping team to one of the best in the nation.
So should UConn try to run? I wouldn’t recommend it. But if Bryant Shirreffs is throwing on every down, the Houston pass rush will pin its ears back and get in his face, so it feels like a pick-your-poison situation for the Huskies.
3. Turnovers were a huge reason UConn was able to pull off the upset last season, with Houston turning it over four times while the Huskies did not have a single turnover. How have the Cougars been hanging onto the ball on offense while also taking it away on defense?
Sam: Save the Cincy game that we talked about in Question 1, the Coogs have generally done a good job taking care of the football. One big concern was they graduated 2 safeties in Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald who were turnover forcing machines and a first round CB in William Jackson III. Through 4 games the fairly young Cougar secondary has not skipped a beat in terms of run support (a specialty of the departed Stewart/McDonald) but not as much in forcing turnovers.
Greg Ward Jr. has taken a big step forward as a passer and decision maker and was already fairly good at taking care of the ball (Mr. Summers’ game-ending pick last year in Hartford notwithstanding) and other than the Cincy game he has looked very sharp.
4. In all likelihood, UConn's offense won't do very much on Thursday night, so it will come down to the defense to keep the Huskies in the game. What are the strengths/weaknesses of the Houston offense?
Dustin: Houston hasn’t had a ton of success running the ball between the tackles this year, which is especially a shame, because Tom Herman and Major Applewhite love running the ball between the tackles. They’ve tried to get the ball to the outside more, whether that’s running Duke Catalon off-tackle or bringing freshman phenom D’Eriq King across on a sweep. However, it’s not impossible for a good defensive front to stop UH from having success handing the ball off, and if they’re also able to keep Greg Ward more or less in the pocket, UH may have to become one-dimensional. The good news for Coog fans is that it’s really hard to keep Greg Ward contained, he’s had respectable pass blocking, and he’s looked excellent as a passer. (Excluding the first couple quarters vs Cincinnati where his shoulder was clearly bothering him.) His receiving corps, which Herman pointed to as a position of concern during fall practice, has looked really good, too, with guys like Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner stepping up their production and making Cougar fans not really miss leading receiver Demarcus Ayers, who skipped his senior season in favor of the NFL draft.
5. If you fell asleep Thursday and slept through the game, only to wake up Friday to see that UConn pulled off the upset (again), what would your guess be as to what went wrong for Houston?
Sam: It would be all of the things that went wrong for 3 quarters versus Cincy, without the 4th quarter surge. If they have a repeat of the Cincy game in terms of sloppiness and inability to run the ball/protect Ward, UConn will absolutely be in this. Also, if Frank Verducci has been playing possum all season and has a pass-happy game plan set for Bryant Shirreffs then the Huskies could score some big plays against a young secondary. Regardless of the game result I expect Noel Thomas will win a few one-on-one battles. I am legitimately somewhat worried about the Coogs’ ability to run the ball against what is a good UConn defensive front.
I don’t see UConn getting much in terms of running the football. Houston’s defensive front is the best I’ve seen in all my years following this team with the likes of Ed Oliver, Steven Taylor, Cameron Malveaux and Matthew Adams.
6. It seems Houston fans (and Tom Herman) are pegging this as a "revenge" game. How much have Houston fans been looking forward to this game since UConn ruined the perfect season last year?
Dustin: It’s kind of funny to think about Thursday’s game as a revenge game, based on the fact that UH wouldn’t have gone to the playoff anyway last year, and beating Florida State (at least for me personally) wiped away any negative memories I may have had from the UConn loss. (Sam, who actually flew up for the UConn game, may feel differently.) At the same time, it would have been amazing to finish a season undefeated, something UH has never done, and y’all did ruin that. So while I don’t know that this is a game that UH has been circling on the calendar, per se, now that it’s here there are definitely a lot of people hoping to see the record set straight on Thursday, and I do anticipate the Coogs coming out with a little extra fire in their bellies.
7. Do you think Houston has a real chance at the CFP if they finish undefeated?
Sam: Yes, I do believe Houston has a chance at the CFP if this team goes undefeated. Is it a high chance? Eh, not really. But we’ve already seen one conference (Big 12) almost eliminated from the CFP and if Louisville beats Clemson and UH beats Louisville, I think a good case can be made for an undefeated Houston in the CFP over a 1 loss Clemson/Louisville. The pessimist in me believes the CFP committee will do whatever possible to keep Houston out, even if the team is undefeated.
8. What's your prediction for the game?
Dustin: Sam and I have both said many times that UConn beating Houston last year wasn’t a fluke. The Huskies lined up and beat us, and deserved to beat us. We also have plenty of respect for the defensive abilities of UConn. But with the game at home, with the revenge factor, and with (quite frankly) a significant overall talent gap in Houston’s favor, I see the Coogs coming out jacked up and winning this one comfortably. I don’t think that UConn is going to do much of anything offensively, and I do think that Houston will find ways to move the ball. On the podcast I predicted 40-10 Coogs, so I’ll stick with that.