Update 11/21 at 11 a.m.: UH announced this morning they've moved kickoff to 11 a.m. due to weather.
The weather's supposed to be wet and stormy this weekend. Just the perfect November weather for college football teams to slip and slide in the mud while dodging puddles on the field and scrambling to retain traction. Just the right conditions for fans to travel to Rice Stadium and TDECU Stadium to watch the Rice Owls and Houston Cougars host important games. Rice kicks things off tonight, hosting UTEP at 7 (on FS1) while Tulsa comes to TDECU for a
2 11 a.m. kickoff (ESPN3) tomorrow.
It's the final home game of the season for both, and they're both hoping to put aside embarrassing losses in their last games. The Owls' (6-4) hopes of again being CUSA champs were pretty much destroyed last week after the team's 41-14 loss to nationally ranked Marshall. The Cougars (5-4), meanwhile, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, giving up a 17-14 halftime lead in a 31-24 loss to 3-6 Tulane. And while Rice can claim to be bowl eligible, the Cougars still find themselves one win short of that magical six-win bowl qualification number.
The weather might play to the Cougars' advantage as UH has seemingly abandoned its trademarked high-flying Air Raid offense for something bordering on a power run game but more often resembling a reaction-inspired mess willing to take anything a defense will allow it to take. Head coach Tony Levine has stated on occasion that the team's offensive game plan is to see what the defense does, then react, rather than to go out and dictate the play. That often leaves the scrambling offense looking for any opening to exploit, and it's not always effective.
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The Cougar defense is usually effective, however, and in many ways, the UH defense is the best thing the offense has going for it. The defense is one of the top units in the country for forcing turnovers, and it seemingly forces multiple turnovers per game -- often returning those turnovers for touchdowns. Those turnovers, when they are deep in opposition territory, have become one of the prime ways the offense gets points, usually making use of that field position to kick field goals.
Levine has attempted to turn UH into a power run team, often abandoning the passing game. Greg Ward Jr., who took over at QB from John O'Korn midway through the season, is well-suited for this version of the offense. He can run the ball, and the best moments for the UH offense come when Ward is forced to pull down the ball and run for his life. He's becoming adept at finding receivers while scrambling, and he's a fearless runner, throwing his body across the field for yardage. He's still turnover-prone (four interceptions against Tulane, including on the final play to seal the Tulane victory), but that's probably to be expected from an offense that reacts instead of dictates the play. The Owls were cruising before the Marshall game, having won six in a row, gaining bowl eligibility and positioning themselves for a repeat appearance in the CUSA title game. But Marshall shut down the Rice offense, limiting the Owls to a total of 180 yards on offense (the Owls usually average 184.5 yards per game just with the rush game). While the loss could probably have been expected -- Marshall is a really good team -- the Owls' overall poor performance was not expected.
UTEP (6-4) provides a surprisingly difficult opponent for the Owls, who rather easily handled UTEP last season. UTEP averages 30.3 points per game and features the type of power run game that UH's Levine probably dreams of nightly. In last week's win over North Texas, UTEP rushed for 351 yards and five touchdowns, led by Aaron Jones, who rushed for 170 yards. The Owls no longer have to play a perfect game to defeat most opponents, but the defense has to keep UTEP out of the end zone, and the offense has to get better at converting long, time-consuming drives into actual points, which is something that has concerned head coach David Bailiff all season, even during the win streak.
So it promises to be a rainy weekend for college football. It's probably the perfect excuse for UH fans to once again not show up for the games, and in truth, the games probably won't be the most exciting college football played this weekend. But there are important stakes for both teams. For the Owls, there's the opportunity to parlay wins into a better bowl game. For the Coogs, there's the chance for that much-needed sixth win that will once again guarantee the Cougars bowl eligibility.