HOUSTON — Joseph Duarte covers University of Houston football for the Houston Chronicle and knows the team as well as anyone. We asked Duarte five questions to gain better insight into BYU's opponent, also the Cougars, this Saturday.
1. Houston is off to an impressive 5-0 start. How good is this team, and has it been truly tested so far this season?
In comparison to last year’s 5-7 mark, the Cougars are much improved, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. What the Cougars have done is take advantage of a soft early schedule that features only one team currently with a winning record. If anything, the first five games have prepared UH for close games, with games against Temple, Rice, UTSA and Memphis all decided in the fourth quarter.
The BYU game marks the biggest challenge to date and begins a brutal stretch during the next month with road games against Rutgers, Central Florida and No. 8 Louisville.
2. Talk about Houston on offense. What type of offense does it run and who are the primary playmakers?
Over the years, Houston has built its reputation nationally for its high-powered offenses, with no team racking up more yards than the Cougars since 2006. First-year offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, who was previously at Oklahoma State, has kept the same up-tempo offense.
The biggest early-season development has been the play of true freshman quarterback John O’Korn. O’Korn was named the backup out of preseason camp but took over in week two when two-year starter David Piland had to end his career because of multiple concussions. O’Korn is poised for an 18-year-old, completing nearly 60 percent of his pass attempts for 1,131 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has thrown only one interception and enters Saturday with a streak of 91 consecutive pass attempts without a pick. UH likes to occasionally use another true freshman, Greg Ward, as a change of pace at quarterback.
The top playmaker for UH is sophomore wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, who is among the national leaders, with 39 catches for 606 yards and three touchdowns, and Daniel Spencer, who has a team-best four touchdowns. Greenberry moved to the inside receiver during the spring and is a matchup nightmare with a combination of speed and 6-3, 198-pound size.
With the loss of leading rusher Charles Sims, who opted to transfer to West Virginia in the offseason, the Cougars used a backfield tandem of Ryan Jackson (391 yards and four touchdowns) and Kenneth Farrow, who scored a pair of touchdowns against Memphis after missing two games with an ankle injury.
3. Same question on defense. What type of defense does it run and who are the primary playmakers?
This has been the difference-maker so far for the Cougars. A year ago, UH ranked among the worst defenses in the nation in most statistical categories, which eventually led to the firing of coordinator Jamie Bryant. UH hired David Gibbs, who had success on the college level at Minnesota and Auburn and was formerly in the NFL with the Broncos, Chiefs and Texans.
UH is a multiple-look defense, mixing in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. The biggest wrinkle has been the use of a rush end, a position that has provided immediate results with true freshman Tyus Bowser and junior-college transfer Trevor Harris combining for five sacks, eight tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries. An emphasis was placed on forcing turnovers in the offseason and the Cougars have responded with 18, which ranks third nationally.
UH likes to rotate nine defensive linemen to keep players fresh. Middle linebacker Derrick Mathews is the top defender along with free safety Trevon Stewart, who was a freshman All-American last season. Houston has done a good job with second-half adjustments and has allowed only three touchdowns after halftime this season. The rush defense will be tested against a mobile quarterback like Taysom Hill and the Cougars’ ability to run the ball. UH is one of only eight teams in the nation not to allow a 100-yard rusher.
4. How does Houston view BYU? Where does Houston match up well against BYU and what matchups could create problems?
With the possibility of becoming bowl eligible with a win Saturday, UH coach Tony Levine has preached to his team not to look ahead. The three things that have been mentioned during the week of preparation have been BYU’s size, ability to run the ball and not discounting Taysom Hill’s arm. Pass protection, specifically knowing where linebacker Kyle Van Noy is at all times, is also a priority.
UH's offense struggled to get into a rhythm last week against a Memphis defense that entered ranked 15th nationally. O’Korn doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and has a lot of weapons at his disposal. They’ve also received exceptional play from linebackers Mathews and Efrem Oliphant, who has gone from a third-stringer in spring practice to second-leading tackler.
5. What does Houston need to do to come away with a win this Saturday?
Tackle, force turnovers and take advantage of red-zone opportunities. Houston has done a great job of tackling this season, limiting missed tackles to 10 or fewer in every game. It’s not uncommon to see seven or eight players around the ball each play. As we mentioned earlier, turnovers have fueled the fast start. UH leads the nation with a plus-14 turnover margin.
Lastly, this is an offense that at times has been unable to get into the end zone and had to settle for field goals. UH has scored on only 57 percent (17-of-30) trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. That has to change to have a chance against BYU.
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