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Preseason Preview: BYU vs. Houston

21 July 2014 Brett Richins
BYU opens its home schedule Sept. 11 against the Houston Cougars of the AAC.

BYU opens its home schedule Sept. 11 against the Houston Cougars of the AAC.

BYU and Houston put on a show at Reliant Stadium in this game last season, rolling up a combined 1,164 yards of total offense.

In the end, the Cougars in blue prevailed 47-46 in one of the more entertaining games of the 2013 season when Taysom Hill found Skyler Ridley in the endzone for an 11-yard touchdown strike with 1:08 remaining.

BYU linebacker Alani Fua then sealed the deal by picking off Houston quarterback John O’Korn with 42 second to go.

Hill had his best passing day of the year, throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns. He also led the way on the ground, rushing for a game-best 128 yards on 34 carries.

BYU found itself up by just three points at 24-21 after the first quarter despite dominating the line of scrimmage. Houston used a kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception for a score to keep the game close early on. The Cougars in red also scored on a 69-yard bomb when wide receiver Xavier Maxwell clearly pushed off on Blake Morgan to make the catch.

O’Korn, a true freshman, then caught fire for Houston, and the game was on. The young QB was able to pick apart the BYU defense, completing 29 of 45 throws for 363 yards and three touchdowns.

He completed five straight passes as he drove Houston down the field late in the fourth quarter and tossed what appeared to be the winning touchdown to Deontay Greenberry with 5:20 remaining.

Hill’s heroics in leading his team back lifted BYU to 5-2 after seven games, while handing Houston its first loss of 2013.

BYU Defense vs. Houston Offense

O’Korn returns for his sophomore campaign after completing 58 percent of his throws last year for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. He struggled down the stretch once the Cougars got into the latter and tougher part of their schedule.

During a three-week stretch in November, O’Korn and the Houston offense averaged just 14.7 points per game in consecutive loses to AAC foes UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati. Counting a 41-24 loss to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Houston lost four of its last five games of the season.

Over those last five games, defenses seemed to figure out O’Korn. He completed just 49 percent of his passes for an average of 199 yards per game during that stretch. After throwing 22 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions through the first eight games, he threw just six TDs and six picks in the final five.

This season O’Korn will look to get back on track and try to take his place among the list of prolific quarterbacks that have played at UH. The great news for the sophomore is that Houston returns eight starters on offense and nearly all of its key playmakers.

Greenberry (6-3, 198 Jr.) returns in 2014 after averaging just over 100 receiving yards last season, which was good enough for 15th in the country. His 11 receiving touchdowns was 19th best. Daniel Spencer (5-11, 195 Sr.) also returns and was the second on the team with 52 catches for 768 yards and six touchdowns.

Both of Houston’s primary running backs also return. Ryan Jackson (5-10, 183 Jr.) rushed for 661 yards and six touchdowns, while Kenneth Farrow (5-11, 216 Jr.) added 574 yards and six scores of his own. The duo also combined for more than 400 receiving yards in 2013.

O’Korn’s protection did take a hit when projected starting tackle Zack Johnson went down for the year with a torn ACL in spring camp. That leaves center Bryce Redman (6-1, 285 Sr.) and guard Rowdy Harper (6-6, 295 Sr.) as the only two players with starting experience up front. Houston hopes that a couple of JUCO transfers, along with Oklahoma State transfer Travis Cross, Oklahoma transfer Kyle Marrs and Hawaii transfer Ben Dew can help fill some holes.

Cross and Dew are both eligible to play after receiving their degrees at their previous schools. Houston has filed paperwork with the NCAA on Marrs’ behalf in hopes that he will receive a waiver and be eligible this season as well.

Newly-appointed offensive coordinator Travis Bush takes over for the departed Doug Meacham and will have to find a way to cobble together a cohesive offensive line from all of his various new pieces. Bush also plans to increase the tempo of an offense that is already a quick-paced, wide-open attack. Although, as BYU can attest, a lack of depth up front could hamper those plans.

BYU was gashed by big passing plays in last season’s game and will have to find a way to tighten up its coverage if it wants to win game two in this series. That should be achievable given the new additions to BYU’s secondary. The return of Jordan Johnson and Trent Trammell from injury, along with the addition of Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson should allow Bronco Mendenhall to employ excellent nickle and dime packages against a pass-happy attack like Houston’s.

BYU Offense vs. Houston Defense

One Houston defender BYU will certainly remember from last year is linebacker Derrick Mathews (6-0, 214 Sr.). Mathews turned in an interception return for a touchdown, 12 tackles and three sacks, including one that resulted in a safety. He recorded 116 tackles in 2013, the third-straight season that he has eclipsed the 100-tackle mark.

Mathews is one of eight returning starters from last year’s defense, including fellow linebacker and leading tackler (134) Efrem Oliphant (6-1, 230 Sr.). Oliphant also had a spectacular game against BYU, recording 16 tackles.

Despite being undersized in the front seven, the Cougars allowed just 149 yards per game on the ground, 10 fewer yards per game than BYU gave up in 2013. New defensive coordinator David Gibbs did a nice job last year and the expectation is that his squad will take the next step in 2014.

Part of the reason is that Houston returns nine of its top eight defensive linemen. The lone loss is starting defensive end Eric Braswell, who suffered a torn ACL during spring practice. This group tends to be light in the britches once again with defensive tackle Joey Mbu (6-2, 312 Sr.) being the only player over 300 pounds, but Gibb’s D makes up for a lack of bulk with quickness and speed.

Against BYU last year, Houston gave up a total of 264 yards on the ground, the most it surrendered all year despite the fact that Hill and Company went more to the air than any other game last year. All totaled, BYU rolled up 681 yards in this contest last year, its best offensive output of the season.

Hill’s success through the air highlighted what was the weakness in the Houston defense–protecting against the pass. The Cougars in red were 108th in the country in passing yards allowed, giving up 267 yards per game.

It doesn’t help this year that Houston has to replace both of its starting corners. One of the corner spots should be manned by the speedy William Jackson (6-1, 175 Jr.), who saw action in all 13 games last year and made four starts. The other corner position is up for grabs, with former Utah transfer Tyler White (5-10, 181 Jr.) competing for the job.

With potential issues at the corners, and considering that Houston gave up 417 passing yards to BYU last time, Hill, and what should be an impressive group of receivers, should be excited to play this game.

While there may be question marks on the outside, the safeties should be a strength of defense this year. Trevon Stewart (5-9, 192 Sr.) is an undersized free safety, but that hasn’t kept him from being named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list to start 2014. The former 2012 freshman All-American was third on the team with 109 tackles last year while also intercepting four passes and recovering a school-record six fumbles.

Houston led the nation last year with 43 takeaways, eight more than the nearest team. The Cougars’ turnover margin of plus-1.90 was also far-and-away the best in the country. In the game against BYU, both teams turned the ball over three times.

Special Teams

Junior kicker Kyle Bullard took over the starting kicking job in the eighth game of the season against USF and went a perfect 6-for-6 on field goal attempts, including a long of 46 yards, and made all 20 of his PATs. However, Houston does have to replace punter Richie Leone. Former Oklahoma transfer Dylan Seibert is the holder on kicks and may be the leading candidate to replace Leone when fall camp gets underway.

Demarcus Ayers (5-10, 173 So.) was the AAC’s top kick return specialist as a freshman and returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown against BYU. Damian Payne (6-0, 200 Sr.) should reprise his role as the team’s leading punt returner. He’s another former transfer from Utah and had a 21-yard kick return against BYU last season.

The Bottom Line

Houston is a team on the rise in The American. With the departure of Louisville to the ACC and the loss of quarterback Blake Bortles to the NFL at UCF, the Cougars could be a major challenger in their conference assuming certain things fall into place.

O’Korn needs to avoid having a sophomore slump and questions need to be answered in the secondary and on the offensive line. If it all comes together, Houston will be a tough out for any team they face this season.

That said, traveling to Provo on a short week to play at elevation on a Thursday night is a difficult task. As this game wears on, the bigger players on offense for BYU should be able to wear down the smaller Houston defenders. The plan to increase the offensive tempo at Houston means that their defense could face even more than the 115 plays they defended last year.

It’s worth noting that without three crazy plays and an interception in the endzone in the first quarter, Houston could have found itself down 31-0 to start last year’s game. This should be another entertaining contest, but BYU comes out the victor in its home opener after a bit of a slow start following a big win at Texas.

Preseason Prognostication: BYU 38 Houston 27

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