Despite their status as a Group of 5 team, Houston has plenty of talented players on their roster, and they beat Arizona in Tucson last year, albeit before Khalil Tate took over at quarterback.
Here are the five most important players for Houston on Saturday.
D’Eriq King, QB
Houston has had good quarterbacks for a very long time, going back almost to the turn of the century. First was Kevin Kolb, who helped Houston get out of a funk they’d been stuck in for a while and was drafted into the NFL. Next up was Case Keenum, who still holds multiple NCAA passing records and is now a pretty solid starter in the NFL. Then Greg Ward Jr. took over and oversaw some of Houston’s most successful seasons, notably Tom Herman’s 13-1 debut season. Now, King is the leader for Houston and he’s just as dangerous as his predecessors.
After being one of three UH quarterbacks to see regular action in 2017, he is now fully in charge of the Cougars. In the season opener against Rice, he looked pretty impressive, completing 17 of 24 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns. While he’s more comfortable throwing the ball, he’s capable of running the ball, gaining 33 yards on seven rushes last Saturday.
King will be facing a questionable Arizona defense on Saturday, and we’ll see if he can lead Houston to victory.
Marquez Stevenson, WR
Stevenson is a redshirt sophmore who before Saturday had never seen real action for Houston. Against Rice, however, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Stevenson was Houston’s receiving leader, racking up 107 yards on just five receptions, including a 57-yard touchdown. He quickly established himself as King’s new favorite weapon, providing both speed and moves, all in his first game. In addition to all that, Stevenson was UH’s second-leading rusher on just two carries, a nine-yard scamper and a 51-yard touchdown. Oh yeah, he’s also the Cougars’ kick returner, and the one return he did have last week went for 36 yards.
Stevenson was Houston’s all-purpose MVP against the Owls, and Arizona will have to bottle him up in order to succeed.
Ed Oliver, DT
I really don’t have to elaborate here, considering Oliver is probably the best defender in the nation and the most talented Group of Five Player since maybe LaDanian Tomlinson.
Still, its worth noting how much of an athlete Oliver is, especially for a school like Houston. Oliver is actually a bit small for a defensive lineman, at 6 foot 3 and 292 pounds. However, he uses his incredible athleticism and leverages every pound on his frame to force any blocker out of his way, and in that way he causes havoc for any offense.
Last year against the Wildcats, Oliver had 11 tackles and a forced fumble. Its entirely possible he could actually improve on those numbers this year against Arizona’s relatively green offensive line.
Isaiah Chambers, DT
Oliver’s partner on the line had perhaps the most entertaining stat-line from all of Saturday’s games. Chambers recorded exactly three tackles, and every single one was a sack. No other Houston player sacked Rice quarterback Shawn Stankavage. Chambers recorded 100% of Houston’s sacks and 0% of its other tackles.
Chambers isn’t solely noteworthy for that weirdly impressive stat, however. He’s not as talented as Oliver, but considering he recorded three sacks in his very first collegiate game, there’s reason for Arizona to be worried about him. Knowing they can’t pay all their attention to Oliver without allowing Chambers to cause disruption is absolutely amazing for Houston’s defense in their attempt to stop Khalil Tate.
If Chambers can build on his debut and become the thunder to Oliver’s lightning, Houston may have a defensive front rivaling the likes of Ohio State and Clemson, which is saying something absolutely massive.
Caden Novikoff or Dalton Witherspoon, K
Both Novikoff and Witherspoon saw action kicking against Rice. Novikoff had a pretty unimpressive showing, missing his only extra point attempt and going 1 for 2 on field goals. Witherspoon never had to attempt anything longer than a 20-yard PAT, but he was perfect on four such attempts. Either of them will be important in what will probably be a close game against Arizona.
As of now, Vegas has Houston a 3.5 point favorite over Arizona, with 2.5 points thanks to home-field advantage. Houston is 62nd and Arizona 72nd in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings. Basically, all signs point to this being a one-possession game, the kind that kicking can decide. Since Houston had iffy kicking against Rice, one of these two players might have a huge say in who leaves TDECU Stadium with a win on Saturday.