The Houston Cougars (3-1) won't be changing their offensive identity to suit whoever starts at quarterback this weekend. They are the team they were at game one. Or so said head coach Kevin Sumlin earlier this week.
Never mind that a freshman will be starting the game. Never mind that the Cougars will be facing Mississippi State (3-2) of the SEC, a team that Sumlin claims is much changed defensively from the team it was last year when the Cougars went into Starksville and pulled off the upset. Never mind that one of the team's leading receivers, James Cleveland, is suspended for the game because of an unspecified violation of team rules.
None of that matters. The Cougars say they're going to play the same game they always play. The other players just need to do their jobs. The offensive line needs to make the blocks. The receivers need to run their routes, the backs need to hit their holes, the defenders need to make stops on third down. If they do this, if they execute, then tomorrow night shouldn't be a problem.
"We've just got to go out there and make plays," running back Bryce Beall said.
"We've got to execute," receiver Tyron Carrier echoed. "We've got to take advantage of the plays we get to catch the ball. No matter how the ball is thrown, or what the situation is, we've got to capitalize on it."
The Cougars used their bye last week to concentrate on execution. To get the freshman QBs, Terrance Broadway and David Piland, more in synch with the entire playbook. Broadway may be better with his legs, and Piland may be better in the pocket, but Sumlin claims he's not going to tailor his offense to fit their different strong points. Of course, tailoring the offense might be a bit difficult anyway, seeing as how Sumlin is claiming he won't be choosing the starting QB until tomorrow.
That's why Sumlin's relying on the rest of the team.
"There's always going to be -- they're freshman -- we're going to have the other players on our team step into a role and become -- take the heat off of them and help make them right," Sumlin said. "And that's our offensive line, our wide receivers, our running backs. Everybody, whether it's in the run game, or the passing game."
And the Cougars are going to need the entire team executing because they're not playing one of C-USA's standard, run-of-the-mill teams this week. They're not facing Tulane on a quick turnaround. They're not facing a Rice team that seemingly finds new ways to self-destruct every week. Instead, they're facing an improving team from one of the nation's best college football conferences.
"Mississippi State obviously provides us with a chance to step out of our league and play a SEC team," Sumlin said. "And with that comes some big fast guys. You look at them -- it starts with their coach, Dan Mullen, who I've got a tremendous amount of respect for. He's a really good coach. He's a guy who has been successful. Knows how to build programs. Working with Urban [Meyer] ever since Notre Dame, being at Bowling Green, being at Utah, building at Florida."
Of course, Mississippi State isn't Florida, and there's no Tim Tebow around to lead Mississippi State to the promised land of national prominence. They do, however, have junior Chris Relf at quarterback, and he's one of those dual-threat run/pass quarterbacks. But it's not the Mississippi State offense that worries the Cougars.
"The added dimension this year is the change on defense," Sumlin said. "I have a lot of respect for [defensive coordinator] Manny Diaz. Obviously he did a great job at Middle Tennessee last year. Anybody who watched them play, watched the bowl game against Southern Miss, his ability to create confusion with his blitz packages, and Chris Wilson [co-defensive coordinator], who is a guy I worked with at Oklahoma, so they bring some attitude. I think that's the difference in how they're doing things right now.'
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And a team with an improving, aggressive defense isn't exactly what a team starting freshman QBs wants to deal with. But the team's not worried.
"We've seen this before, and we should be okay," Beall said.
The Cougars should be fine tomorrow, freshman QB or not, if they do their jobs. If they execute and make the plays and make the tackles. They've faced bigger, faster, stronger teams in the past, and they've lived to brag of victory. But that was with Case Keenum at quarterback, and Keenum had the ability to make up for the other mistakes of others.
MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES: Sumlin said Justin Johnson, who has mostly played running back, and Kenneth Bibbins, Jr. will be picking up the slack for the missing James Cleveland, but Sumlin does expect Cleveland to return next week....The Cougars have won 18 straight home games, which is their best home winning streak in school history....Houston leads the series with Mississippi State 9-6.