The Houston Cougars throttled USF 27-3 on Saturday. The Rice Owls demolished FIU, getting the 31-17 win. Both teams move to 5-3 on the season and both are 3-1 in their respective conferences. It was the third straight win for UH, the fifth straight for Rice. And both teams return home for key conference games on Saturday. But the similarities do not end there.
That both teams won games they should have won is not too surprising. The Cougars seem to have recovered from some serious start-of-season hiccups that saw losses to UTSA, BYU, and UCF. The Cougars have abandoned the high-flying, pass-happy Air Raid offense that pushed the team up and down the field in quick thrusts and left defenses gasping for air. Last season's AAC Rookie of the Year, QB John O'Korn, has been benched and replaced by a quarterback, Greg Ward, Jr., who started the season as a wide receiver and is as dangerous running with the ball as he is at throwing it.
The Owls started the season 0-3, with the not-too-surprising opening losses on the road to Notre Dame and Texas A&M. The loss to Old Dominion was a bit unforeseen and the Owls, defending C-USA champs, looked unlikely to repeat. But the Owls have gotten lots of defensive players back from injuries, and the offense has kicked into gear paced by a strong running game and QB Driphus Jackson's ability to not only take off and run with the ball, but to also hit big passes to wide receivers.
But where both teams excel is on the defensive side of the ball. The Cougars have forced turnovers in 31 straight games and the Owls have made holding opposition offenses to single digit yards in the fourth quarter a specialty. Both defensive units stress fundamentals, being in the right place, making the right play.
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David Gibbs is the man in charge of the Cougar defense. He's in second year with the Cougars. He was previously defensive coordinator at Minnesota and coached at Auburn while also making a stop with the Texans. When he took over at UH last year, he simplified things. It wasn't about exotic coverages and flashy blitzes. It was about making tackles. About wrapping up runners. It was about multiple defenders converging on the ball carrier. The turnovers result not so much from focusing on making a turnover but focusing on making the play, whether it's a tackle or breaking up a pass attempt. Chris Thurmond's in his third year as the Rice defensive coordinator. The Owls aren't as physical as many teams, nor are they as quick. The team can't afford mistakes. So the Owls also focus on fundamentals. On making the tackle and not getting beat by a receiver. Thurmond's Owls are big on tackles for loss of yardage, and on getting to the QB. Zach Patt, coming back from injury, sacked the FIU quarterback five times on Saturday while forcing three fumbles.
Gibbs and Thurmond were both nominees for the Broyles Award last season, an award that goes to the top college assistant coach. And if you spend time at either school, you know that the players are devoted to them. Which is probably why UH and Rice should both be worrying about the future, and whether or not other schools might soon be trying to poach them away to higher profile, higher paying gigs. These guys (and their coaches) are doing tremendous jobs at schools not previously known for defense, so just expecting them to stick around is probably wishful thinking.
The Cougars and Owls are each one win away from qualifying for a bowl game, and both teams are still in contention to win their respective conferences. Fans in Houston aren't used to these schools having superb defenses that can carry their teams, if needed (it's currently more needed at UH than at Rice). Rice is probably the better all-around team, but both teams are going to win on the ability of their defenses to keep the opposition off of the board.
Rice hosts UTSA (2-6) at Rice Stadium Saturday at 11:00. A win will the put Owls in good shape before heading off to Marshall to face one of the country's top-25 rated teams (and the team Rice beat last season for the conference title). The Cougars host Tulane (2-6) at 2:30 at the new, beautiful TDECU Stadium. Plenty of seats should be available for both games, so buy some cheap tickets and hit up both games. And while you're there, make sure to show some appreciation for the superb work being done by David Gibbs and Chris Thurmond.