This college football season is still early, but early though it might be, it's becoming increasingly evident that both the Rice Owls and Houston Cougars are going bowling. Each team still has some obstacles to overcome, but both teams are fast approaching the needed number of wins for bowl qualification.
Saturday was déjà-vu all over again time for the Owls. They traveled up to Tulsa and lead the Golden Hurricane for 58 minutes of the game. Then Tulsa overcame a big deficit to send the game into overtime. But this time there was a slight difference. Unlike last season, this time the Rice Owls got the win, handing on for the 30-27 overtime win to go to 3-2 on the season (2-0 in conference).
The problem for the Owls was the same as always: the Owls beating the Owls. The offense scored touchdowns its first two drives of the game, going 75 yards each time. There was a nice tempo and rhythm with QB Taylor McHargue finding his receivers and the backs doing what needed to be done. But the Owls picked up just 194 yards the rest of the game as the offense shut down and the running game stopped.
The Rice defense once again did the best it could, surrendering just 13 points through the first three quarters. But as is often the case, it could only do so much, allowing Tulsa to score 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Owls stopped Tulsa in overtime, forcing the Golden Hurricane to settle for a field goal in its only OT possession. The Owls then scored a touchdown, McHargue hitting running back Darick Dillard for a 25-yard pass to end the game and give Rice the win.
The Owls play in a soft conference, and all of the remaining games on the Rice schedule are winnable games, so it should be pretty easy for them to get the three more wins necessary to guarantee a bowl game. But just getting a bowl shouldn't be enough for the Owls. This is a veteran squad with lots of supposed depth and experience on offense. Yet except for the A&M game, the Owls have struggled offensively in every game. Perhaps the return of a healthy Charles Ross to the backfield will cure whatever ails the Owls, however, unless Rice totally collapses, the team will be making back-to-back bowl games for the first time in five decades.
The Cougars just had their finally open week of the season. The team's sitting pretty at 4-0 as it heads into conference play. The team's schedule hasn't been much to speak of - Rice was the toughest opponent they've played so far - so it's hard to determine just how the Cougars will operate as the opposition gets better.
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The Cougars host 1-3 Memphis this weekend for what should be an easy win, but then they face BYU (3-2), Rutgers (4-1), USF (1-4), UCF (4-1), Louisville (5-0) and Cincinnati (3-2) before finishing the season by facing a so-far hapless 1-4 SMU squad. The Cougars, while 4-0, have struggled at times, barely pulling out a win against an awful Temple squad, nearly giving away the game to Rice, and allowing UTSA to stay in the game for a half before pulling away.
There is a lot to like, though, from what UH has shown. The defensive unit is playing the best football seen on that side from a UH team since perhaps the Jack Pardee-era. The opposition has yet to match up the caliber of what Louisville will be able to produce, but UH stopping any team should always be seen as a plus. The offense though, has been a bit inconsistent. The Cougars have been able to easily go up and down the field against every team they've faced, they just haven't, however, always been able to score once reaching the red zone - this was the primary issue in the Temple and Rice games.
The Cougars running back and receivers have excelled for the most part, however. But the question comes with how UH will continue handling the QB position. Junior David Piland and freshman John O'Korn shared duties to start the season - Piland being the starter - but Piland ended up missing most of the Temple game and all of the Rice and UTSA games because of a concussion. O'Korn has shown a good, veteran grasp of the offense and has developed chemistry with his receivers, especially with Deontay Greenberry. But freshman QB Greg Ward, Jr. has been getting lots of snaps in Piland's absence. Ward brings a different presence to the offense, being a more mobile QB who can get yards on the run. Head coach Tony Levine said earlier in the year, when Piland and O'Korn were getting the snaps, that he couldn't see sticking with two QBs as the season advances. But with the team's current success, one has to wonder if he's going to stay with that stance.
It's still early in the season. And both teams have issues. But as things stand, Rice and Houston are going bowling to end the season, and unlike a certain school in Austin, Rice and Houston won't need the help of the officiating crews to make that happen.