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Cincinnati vs Houston Preview: Q&A with Houston Perspective

The Houston Cougar’s best “Pawdcast” offers insights into Saturday’s Houston vs Cincinnati game.

Houston v Cincinnati Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Down the Drive will not be producing a new Podcast this week in preparation for Cincinnati’s football game against Houston. It will be the 26th meeting between Houston and Cincinnati.

But we have connected with our friends Sam and Dustin from The Scott & BOO-lman Pawdcast, covering Cougars athletics.

They offer insights on the 2019 Cougars, their thoughts on the Bearcats and what to expect in this Saturday’s game.

Who are the 2019 Houston Cougars? Are you a good team in 2019, one who will compete for the AAC West? Are you biding time to 2020, awaiting the return of redshirts, new recruits, health and an easier schedule?

Sam: Inherently that’s a difficult question to answer, for reasons that you probably have some knowledge of. The obvious reason for this is we’ve only had 1 game since D’Eriq King and Keith Corbin announced they’d be redshirting the rest of 2019 and planning on returning in 2020. Also, playing 4 games in 18 days to start the year with 3 of those games coming against Oklahoma, Wazzu and Tulane is kind of absurd. You could see the team wear down consistently in the 2nd halves of those games (especially Wazzu, Tulane) and really promising 1st halves gave way to frustration in the 2nd.

The 2019 Cougars are a team in transition. There are going to be growing pains with any new head coach and staff and Houston is no different. What the 2019 team has is the luxury of expectations being tamped down a bit and maybe a bit more room to grow into systems that are dramatically different than what they ran previously.

I’d be surprised if this team seriously contends in the AAC West as this side of the league looks really difficult with Memphis still quite good and SMU/Tulane having their best seasons in decades. I think most of the fan base would be happy with the team looking better at the end of the season and getting a couple wins against the more serious league title contenders.

What have you learned about Houston in the losses to Oklahoma, Washington St, and Tulane?

Dustin: The primary thing we learned was that something wasn’t right with D’Eriq King running Dana Holgorsen’s offense. I don’t know if there was a lingering injury issue, or if D’Eriq just wasn’t immediately clicking with what Holgo wants to do schematically, or if D’Eriq was just going through a rough stretch of play, but he looked miles worse than he did a year ago. He wasn’t making throws he routinely made last year, and the offense just never generated any momentum. Defensively, we learned that this unit isn’t catastrophically bad like it was at the end of last year. I think any defense facing Oklahoma this year would do well to burn the tape, and while the defense wore down at the end of the Wazzu and Tulane losses, it showed some really exciting things early in both games. Finally, we learned that no team should ever, ever, ever have to play three consecutive short weeks after their season opener. Give Tulane every credit for beating the Cougars, but I’d love to see how that game plays out if Houston’s defense isn’t openly sucking wind by the 3rd quarter.

What are the key differences, both good and bad, that you’ve noticed from previous Head Coach Major Applewhite to new Head Coach Dana Holgorsen?

Sam: The investment from the boosters (a healthy amount of that from Tilman Fertitta) was ‘night and day’ from when Applewhite was here. Holgorsen himself got a salary that was top 25 of all FBS head coaches. As importantly, he was able to assemble a staff that was both fairly young and not short on credentials. My favorite hire was Holgorsen bringing Tyron Carrier with him from West Virginia to serve as receivers coach and assistant head coach. Carrier was a favorite target of Case Keenum when he played here from 2007-11 and was FootballScoop’s receivers coach of the year in 2018. Holgorsen also plucked co-OC/offensive line coach Brandon Jones from Mack Brown’s new UNC staff, which is the kind of ‘swing your dick around’ move all of us outside the privileged 5 conferences enjoy but don’t often get to experience.

Another big difference has been the number of ‘off field’ personnel that are football-specific on the new staff as compared to the old one. These are guys who are focused on recruiting and strength & conditioning, 2 areas where the last staff didn’t do that well. Whether the last staff’s failings in those areas were a result of investment or hiring the wrong people (both things are probably somewhat true) the current staff has those areas covered a lot better than the last.

The early returns on recruiting have been quite encouraging, too. About 2 weeks after Holgorsen came in, the Coogs flipped JC 1st team All-American CB Damarion Williams from SMU and he’s started every game of the 2019 season. The new staff also brought in some intriguing ‘sit out’ transfers: Eyabi Anoma, a top 5 national recruit from Bama and Marcus Jones, a one-time freshman All-American at Troy, among others. The 2020 class profiles pretty similarly to the kinds of high school players that have succeeded at UH historically.

Holgorsen has been tough on this team, specifically during fall camp when he said he didn’t think they had experienced tough practices under the last staff. He’s been brutally honest about some of the shortcomings and areas of this program he wants to be different. Its too early to say how much (or even if) he’ll succeed in Houston. But he has a lot more credibility than Major Applewhite, someone who is probably under qualified to be a college OC.

What was your initial reaction to the D’Eriq King story and do you believe he is going to be Houston’s QB in 2020?

Dustin: I mean, I’d be lying if I said anything other than my initial reaction was slack-jawed shock, same as everybody else. I went from there to being pretty excited about the move, because we both expect the Cougar defense to be pretty salty next year, and pairing up a defense like that with D’Eriq King on offense is intriguing. I went from there to deep depression that he would surely transfer to Florida State to work with Kendal B****s again. And then, after D’Eriq publicly declared that he was staying, (just a couple hours after the story broke, to cap off this roller coaster of emotions) I went into the wait-and-see mode I think all of Cougar-dom is currently in. Not that we don’t trust D’Eriq when he says he’s coming back, we’ve just heard that line before on multiple occasions and had it not end up being true. If I had to pick the scenario I find most likely, I’d go with D’Eriq King is Houston’s QB in 2020, because he made much more of a public deal out of stating his intention to come back than he needed to if he’s actually on the fence. But I wouldn’t be surprised (or hold it against him) in the least if he leaves, and honestly I wouldn’t even be *that* surprised if, as Andy Staples has suggested, D’Eriq decides his NFL career may be at receiver, and returns to Houston and switches back to WR. That’s the least likely scenario for sure, and it requires Clayton Tune to really grab the reins of the QB job the rest of this year to even consider it, but nobody saw any of this coming, so who’s to say how it plays out?

What one thing must happen for Houston to win on Saturday?

Sam: The Cougars offense and their new starting QB Clayton Tune need to be able to throw the ball effectively enough to keep Cincy’s awesome defense honest. Holgorsen probably won’t ask Tune to throw it 45 or 50 times. But if the Bearcats don’t have to respect UH’s ability to throw the ball its going to be a long and gruesome Saturday afternoon.

Even without King and Corbin, the Coogs still have a pretty interesting group of receivers and backs who are guaranteed not to be sitting out in 2019. Patrick Carr missed the first 2 games and has looked somewhere between very good and near unstoppable at running back through 3 games. Marquez Stevenson is the best athlete left on this offense and has a good case for being the best quick twitch athlete on either of these teams. If Stevenson gets even a little space, he’s liable to find the end zone, no matter where he is on the field. Kyle Porter, Jeremy Singleton, Courtney Lark and Christian Trahan are other offensive players who’ve shown flashes of high-level ability, as well.

Defensively, the Cougars are still a work in progress after having maybe the worst season in school history in 2018. New DC Joe Cauthen (previously long-time DC at Arkansas State) is starting to show some proof of concept on that side of the ball, despite being left maybe 3 D1 caliber defensive backs by the last staff. The Coogs had their most complete effort of the season 2 weeks ago against a good North Texas offense, holding the Mean Green to 18 points on 11 possessions before garbage time. Guys like Grant Stuard, Zamar Kirven, Donovan Mutin and Payton Turner really need to bring their ‘A game’ in run defense to give the Coogs a chance to win this one.

What worries you the most about Cincinnati?

Dustin: To play off of what my co-host just said, what scares me most is that Cincinnati’s defense will just suffocate a Cougar offense that is still figuring things out. I was certainly encouraged by how Clayton Tune (and the rest of the Cougar offense) played against North Texas, but there’s a big difference between UNT’s defense and Cincinnati’s. And as much as I’d like to use UNT as the only data point on which I judge this offense, we did also see the Coogs completely lose the ability to move the ball down the stretch against the likes of Wazzu and Tulane. And not only are the redshirts unavailable on offense, but the Coogs also had two offensive linemen make their first career starts in the UNT game due to injury, and one or both of them will be starting again on Saturday. They looked solid up in Denton, but again, big difference in competition facing the Bearcats. The Cougar defense, encouraged though I may be by them, isn’t going to pitch a shutout, so the Coogs will have to put the ball in the end zone a couple times at least, and I’m not convinced that happens.

What should worry Cincinnati the most about Houston?

Sam: North Texas isn’t nearly as good as Cincinnati, so comparing that game’s outcome to this coming Saturday’s game is an inherently imperfect comparison. But soundly beating North Texas at their place with 1/3 of your offensive/defensive starters missing is a bigger statement than UH maybe has gotten credit for.

This looked like a radically different team with a full week’s rest against UNT and they’re getting 2 weeks off before Cincy comes to town. I think Cincy will have a harder time moving the ball against the new-look UH defense than maybe the average fan would expect. Houston’s big defensive weakness is teams that like to throw the ball a bunch and stylistically I don’t think that’s what the Bearcats want to do.

The Bearcats will come in as a team that deserves to be in the top 25 and with multiple good wins under their belt. But Houston has played a brutal non-conference schedule and as much as any team Cincy has played (save for Ohio State) is battle-tested. UH not only is capable of playing the smash mouth style Cincy wants to play, I think they’d prefer it to a faster more wide-open game.

I wouldn’t take this as wild confidence that we’re going to beat Cincy from yours truly, just that UH matches up better in some areas than it might appear on first blush.

What would beating Cincinnati on Saturday mean to Houston?

Dustin: Saturday’s game is huge for the Cougars. A win would mean that Houston’s still very much alive in the AAC West race. It would put to bed all talk of the Cougars “tanking” this year by fully utilizing the redshirt rule. It would be the first real notch on Dana Holgorsen’s belt as a UH head coach, and quiet a lot of the critics that want to see UH fall on its face after throwing so much of Tilman Fertitta’s money around. Assuming Clayton Tune plays well (which probably has to happen if Houston beats Cincinnati), it raises further questions about whether or not D’Eriq King will have an open QB job waiting for him next year. Bottom line, it means that the Dana Holgorsen experiment is on track and ahead of schedule. I actually like Houston’s position heading into this one, it feels like they have a lot more to gain than they have to lose. A loss means that Houston’s only real goal this year is making a bowl, and that we can start focusing fully on 2020, but everybody kind of suspects those things are already the case anyway.