The Arizona Wildcats take on the Houston Cougars on Saturday in Tucson, and instead of us trying to break down the Cougars, we asked a couple folks who cover the team (and know a lot more than us) to give us the inside scoop.
Those folks are Sam and Dustin from the Scott & Holman Pawdcast, who were kind enough to share their insight.
Here we go!
Q. What are Houston's biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Sam: There’s an element of the theoretical to this answer because we haven’t actually seen this team play and Major Applewhite has kept it pretty vague on what the team will look like in 2017. The biggest strength is a defensive front seven that features Ed Oliver, and also the somewhat overlooked (outside of Houston) Matthew Adams at middle linebacker. Adams is a ferocious hitter and prototypical run stuffer. The receiver corps also returns Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar who have both played a lot the last 2 seasons.
The biggest weakness from last year was an offensive line that was short on experience and got racked by injury in 2016. This unit is a lot more experienced for all of last year’s struggles, but it is still a big question mark. The secondary also lost both their starting cornerbacks from last year: Howard Wilson and Brandon Wilson (no relation). Isaiah Johnson is an intriguing prospect to watch at cornerback, as he’s a 6’4” former receiver with Division 1 track level speed. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty at cornerback right now.
Q. What is UH's style of play?
Dustin: It’s hard to give a good answer to that with UH breaking in a new head coach, new coordinators and a new quarterback this year — and we won’t even know for sure who that quarterback will be until Friday. I’d be surprised if it’s not Kyle Allen, but Major Applewhite has been saying all the right things about all the quarterbacks impressing him, and he does seem to be legitimately splitting reps pretty evenly.
Offensively, the last few coaches have all run variations on uptempo, spread, pass-heavy offenses. The last two years under Herman (and Applewhite as OC), the Cougars emphasized the run more — to the chagrin of many fans last year when UH didn’t have a lot of success running the ball. So I do expect to see a lot of 3- and 4-receiver sets, and I do expect to see the Coogs move quickly, but it remains to be seen what the pass/run ratio is.
The other question I have is how much the QB running the ball plays into the offense. That probably only comes up if Allen doesn’t win the job, but the other two guys vying for that starting job (senior Kyle Postma and sophomore D’Eriq King) are good and great runners, respectively, and that’s something we’ve seen with Greg Ward Jr. the last couple of years, as well as something that new OC Brian Johnson is used to having as part of his offense, having coached Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at his last coaching stop.
Defensively, the Cougars have moved pretty fluidly between a 3-4 and a 3-3-5 the last couple of years, and from what little I was able to see in spring and fall practice, it looks like that will continue. Previous DC Todd Orlando was very fond of running various exotic blitz packages, but what new DC Mark D’Onofrio wants to do remains to be seen.
Q. How significant is the loss of Greg Ward Jr. and what are you expecting from the QB position this season?
Sam: I would say very significant. Greg Ward Jr. is a really amazing story, as he wasn’t highly recruited out of Tyler, TX and was in the same class the much more ballyhooed John O’ Korn (currently a backup QB on a Michigan team with no good QBs). Ward was a perfect fit for the offense our last coach wanted to run and in 2015 he was otherworldly. His ability to sense and escape pressure was as good as any QB I’ve ever seen. He was in agony most of 2016, but still managed to start almost every game and led the team to 9 wins. He lost 6 times in almost 3 years as a starter, which says it all.
As for current QBs, we thought former five-star Kyle Allen was a shoe-in to win the starting job. But Applewhite said on Monday he is not going to name a starter until Friday. The other candidate for the job is Kyle Postma, Ward’s back up the last 2 years. Postma has been solid when called upon (he led UH to a win over Memphis that was the biggest comeback of 2015) and he’s closer to Ward in terms of playing style than Allen, who’s more of a pocket passer. I expected at worst they’ll be slightly above average and at best all-conference caliber.
Q. What is the overall feeling about Major Applewhite and his readiness to be a head coach?
Dustin: There is ambivalence among the UH fan base about that subject, to be sure. When Applewhite was first announced, some folks were certainly scratching their heads, which probably had a lot to do with some of the sexy names that were thrown around during the coaching search. There was talk that a sitting Power-Five coach like Dana Holgorsen or Mike Leach might be interested. Lane Kiffin and Les Miles were in the running, and we ended up going with an in-house candidate — and not even the in-house candidate that most expected!
Our defense has been the more impressive side of the ball the last two years, so the conventional thinking was that if UH did stay in-house, they would go with Orlando, who was initially named interim HC when Herman left. But what Major Applewhite does have going for him is a reputation as a quarterback developer — UH prides itself on its quarterback play — and the respect of high school head coaches around Houston and the state of Texas.
Everybody in the UH community is very much pulling for him to succeed, and I’m fairly confident he’ll do well at UH, but enough people questioned the hire that if he stumbles early, it won’t take long for the armchair ADs to call for his head.
Q. Just how good is Ed Oliver, and how can he be stopped/limited? What other defensive players should concern Arizona fans?
Sam: Ed Oliver is the best defensive player I’ve ever watched in the flesh, regardless of school. His first ever game was against Oklahoma and he had two sacks, which gives you an idea how ready for the college game he was last year. You can find clips of Oliver (a 3-4 tackle mind you) chasing the ball carrier down for a tackle from the other side of the field.
He’s freakishly athletic and the kind of magnetic personality other players gravitate to on a team. The only times I’ve seen him get stopped and limited is by injury. He went out early injured vs Memphis and SDSU to close last season and the defense was worse as a result. As for other defensive players to worry about, I mentioned Adams earlier and in the defensive front Nick Thurman is a third-year starter and space-eating run stuffing 3-4 type of end. The Coogs also brought in Reggie Chevis, another space-eating DE and a grad transfer from Texas A&M. Both of the starting safeties from last year — Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis — are back and are plus run defenders. One of my favorite gifs from last year was Davis absolutely flattening Oklahoma RB Samaje Perrine short of a first down.
Q. How do you think Houston not playing vs. UTSA will impact their performance against Arizona?
Dustin: It’s certainly a concern. You can ask fans in Austin or Waco right now and they’ll tell you that first games under new head coaches can be tricky. Honestly I don’t know what to expect. While most teams were prepping for Week 1, the Cougar football team was collecting and distributing supplies, and helping rebuild flooded houses of family members and others in the community.
Does that mean they’ll come out and play inspired football? Or that they’ll be distracted? Either seems equally likely. I would certainly prefer to have had a game to work out the kinks, but we’ll see how it goes.
Q. What worries you about Arizona?
Sam: As good as UH’s defense has been against the run recently, what they’ll be seeing from Arizona is something entirely different. Rich Rodriguez is going to have a good idea of how to run away from the likes of Oliver and Adams. Brandon Dawkins is an outstanding runner who will be better for all the lumps he took in 2016 and it looks like he has at least three backs he can get the ball to in space for big yardage. Even with the pass game being kind of sketchy, I also worry about Dawkins still getting off 2-3 big pass plays vs inexperienced Cougar cornerbacks. Also, West Coast trips haven’t been kind to the Cougars in recent history (see: 2010, 2012 losses to UCLA).
Q. How confident are Houston fans about this game?
Dustin: I think most Cougar fans are expecting a win. Houston’s record against the Power Five has been pretty good as of late, and I think most fans look at Arizona’s record from last year and expect to be able to pull this one off.
However, I do think this is one game where most UH fans will just be happy to see Cougar football again, and won’t overreact to any result that isn’t a blowout loss.
Q. What is a scenario in which Arizona beats Houston and vice versa?
Sam: I’ll give the scenario where Arizona wins first. The Wildcats run offense scares me, despite the confidence I have in the Cougar front seven. Dawkins will make enough big plays that the UH defense starts cheating to play the run and he’s able to hit a few big pass plays. He only ends up completing 5-6 passes, but all of them go for big yardage. Kyle Allen and the Cougar offense still aren’t effective enough running the football to keep up with the Wildcats’ offense and they win by 8-10 points, with both teams scoring 35+ points. Let’s say 45-37 Wildcats for this scenario.
Here’s the Houston scenario. Kyle Allen (or hey, maybe Kyle Postma) feasts on a young and struggling Arizona D. The Cougars exorcize the demons of their terrible 2016 run offense and some UH fans already begin pre-typing terrible “Maybe (2017 starting QB) was better than Greg Ward Jr” takes. Dawkins and various Arizona are still able to make big plays, but Oliver proves to be too much for yet another Power-Five conference foe, while UH is able to move the ball as effectively as NAU without making the same red zone mistakes en route to a 35-28 Cougar win.
Q. Score prediction?
Dustin: For our preview episode, Sam and I both came up with score predictions, and we both independently arrived at 38-28 Houston, so that’s what I’ll go with.
Thanks again to Sam and Dustin for taking the time to answer our questions. You can listen to their latest podcast where they discuss Arizona-Houston here.