In a game that could determine Arizona’s bowl eligibility at the end of the season, here are five Wildcats (OK, four and a position group) to watch:
1. Brandon Dawkins
89 passing yards was enough against NAU, but the Wildcats are going to have to string some plays together through the air to beat Houston.
The Cougars were stout against the run last season, finishing eighth in the country in rush defense and only allowed 3.2 yards per carry. Houston returns most of its front seven from a year ago, including preseason All-American Ed Oliver, so its excellence in that department will likely continue this season.
Thus, the Cougars may be able to slow Arizona’s usually-potent run game and force Dawkins to beat them through the air. Dawkins doesn’t have to throw for 250 yards, but he will need to connect on some shots down the field to keep UH honest.
Random stat, but Dawkins has not thrown for more than 116 yards since Oct. 8 of last year.
2. Lorenzo Burns
Burns, who made his first career start at cornerback last week, said he had an “average game” against NAU. The Wildcats surrendered 337 passing yards to the Lumberjacks and part of the problem, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said, is Arizona’s cornerbacks “panicked” when the ball was thrown their direction. Their coverage was often good, but their inability to turn their head toward the ball or avoid penalties was costly.
Arizona worked on that in practice this week, and it will be needed as Houston has a solid wide receiver corps, including Linell Bonner, who had 1,118 receiving yards last season, and Steven Dunbar, who had 692.
3. Jace Whittaker
The same goes for Jace Whittaker, Arizona’s No. 1 cornerback. We don’t know who Houston’s quarterback is yet, but they are expected to have a strong passing game this season, and Arizona’s cornerbacks will have to be better than an average to improve to 2-0.
4. Arizona’s offensive line
As alluded to earlier, Houston’s defensive line is scary. If they have their way against Arizona’s offensive line, they can shut down the Wildcats’ running game and put a major dent in the team’s offensive production.
And Dawkins doesn’t exactly thrive when pressured — he usually decides to run — so giving him a clean pocket will give him the best chance to connect on some big gains through the air, which could be the deciding factor in the game.
5. Shun Brown
The Wildcats need Brown to aid Dawkins in the passing game this week. Brown returned a punt for a touchdown last week, but was basically MIA in the passing game, as he had just one catch for five yards.
There’s only so much a wide receiver can do when a quarterback is inaccurate, but Brown creating yards after the catch or coming down with a 50/50 ball or two could be a game-breaking boost for Arizona.
This offseason, Brown was deemed to be Arizona’s clear No. 1 receiving target, and this is a game he needs to assert himself in.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire