The Washington State Cougars had fun gobbling up cupcakes through the first two weeks of the 2019 season, but things get a little more real as they hit the road to face the Houston Cougars at NRG Stadium on Friday night (6:15 pm PT, ESPN). The game pits Mike Leach against his former player and assistant, Dana Holgorsen.
Through Holgorsen’s first two games, Houston has lost to one of the nation’s best teams with an all-time great offense in Oklahoma, and beaten Prairie View A&M.
Holgorsen bolted from West Virginia for UH in the offseason, a place where he served as the offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009. Before that, he was an assistant from 2000 to 2007 under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. So, Houston definitely Air Raids, but it’s not exactly the same thing to which WSU fans are accustomed
We’ll get into that as we review the key players and trends for the Coogs in their matchup with the school from which their nickname originated.
When Houston has the ball...
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Coug fans, when the big bad wolf is a quarterback that can move. Houston’s D’Eriq King certainly fits that mold—he totaled 50 touchdowns last season, 14 of which came on the ground. He’s picked up where he left off in the rushing game this season, putting up 102 net yards and three scores through two games.
Most of his damage on the ground came against Oklahoma, where he logged 103 yards on 15 carries—actually 114 on 12 carries when you take away sacks—and a touchdown.
But even with King’s rushing performance against the Sooners, Houston averaged just 5.9 yards per play overall in that 48-31 loss. That’s not the mark of a strong offense, especially against a middling Oklahoma defense (Sooners rank No. 68 in defensive SP+, for comparison WSU’s D is at 60 and finished last season at 59).
What’s been surprising so far is the way King has struggled in the passing game. Perhaps there’s an adjustment period to Holgorsen’s offense, but through two games King has completed just 29 of 53 passes (54.7 percent) for 306 yards. That’s a paltry 5.8 yards per attempt. Contrast that to the 8.6 yards he gained per pass in 2018, and you can see that something ain’t right for the Coogs.
King’s top pass catchers have been Marquez Stevenson with 10 receptions for 105 yards and Keith Corbin with 5 receptions for 90 yards. No other Coog has more than 37 receiving yards. It’s important to remember that while Holgorsen is a Leach disciple, his offense is far more run-heavy (here’s a good read on that).
The top healthy runner on the team is Kyle Porter, who has carried 33 times for 160 yards and a score. He and King will have the ball the most. Houston is without its best running back, Patrick Carr, who is out with a knee injury.
Up front, Houston has given up seven sacks so far this season—four of which came at the hands of Prairie View A&M. When you put that against 54 total passes, that’s a very high sack rate. There’s an opportunity for WSU to pressure and generate tackles for loss.
Despite the slow start from Houston, this will easily be the best offense that WSU has faced this season. Houston currently ranks 37th in SP+ offensively, and King is a gifted and explosive player that can make a defense pay for a mistake.
Wazzu has a reputation as struggling against running quarterbacks largely because it has in the Speed D era been susceptible to misdirection. We’ve seen players over-pursue and put themselves out of position this season, particularly against Northern Colorado. If they do that, King and company will have the ability to punish them far more than the Bears did.
However, this isn’t the offense that everyone expected out of Houston, at least not yet. It hasn’t been explosive or efficient. I would expect improvement from Game 2 to Game 3 under a new coach, but I’d also expect some of the issues with WSU’s defense to be cleaned up. The Cougs are going to play fewer people, and hopefully that means fewer missed gaps.
Points will be scored. Houston has been good in the red zone, so their offense will put up a fight. If WSU’s defense can manage to limit the big plays, as well as force Houston into obvious passing downs with the occasional tackle-for-loss, they can probably escape looking reasonably solid.
There is always that big bad wolf, though.
When WSU has the ball...
Houston’s defense is better than the defenses at New Mexico State and Northern Colorado, but it’s far from good. The Cougars are 99th in SP+ and have given up 7.55 yards per play. That’s a lot, but that includes allowing just 4.4 yards a play to Prairie View A&M. So, what exactly did Oklahoma do? 11.2 yards per play.
That’s more than WSU against Northern Colorado. That’s straight up gashing a defense over and over and over again. Only a couple lost fumbles and a couple stalled drives saved that Oklahoma score from being embarrassingly large.
Now, Wazzu’s offense isn’t on the level of what Lincoln Riley’s crew is doing in Norman. Nobody is even close to that. However, WSU is currently 12th in SP+, so it does feature one of the best offenses in the country.
We’ve salivated over Anthony Gordon’s YPA—nearly 12 against Northern Colorado. Well, Oklahoma put up 13.8 yards per pass against the Houston defense. Even Prairie View A&M was able to log 6.5 yards per pass, despite hitting on just 15 of 38 attempts.
There are big plays to be made against Houston for WSU’s stacked receiving corps. Gordon will find open guys. It also helps that the game was moved indoors to NRG Stadium, where Air Raid conditions will be perfect.
I wouldn’t expect pressure to be an issue. Houston does have three sacks on the season, but all three came against Prairie View A&M. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts was kept clean while completing 20 of 23 passes.
On the ground, the Coogs completely shut down Prairie View A&M, but Oklahoma shredded them for nearly 10 yards a carry. Max Borghi will likely find space to pick up chunks in the running game.
We should see more offensive fireworks from WSU. The point total might not be as high as the first two games, because Houston will hold onto the ball longer itself, but there will be plenty of scoring drives. Wazzu has come up empty on just four total non-kneel down drives this season, and I expect that trend to continue.
The Bottom Line
Both teams are going to score points with regularity, and Holgorsen’s offense will be more finely tuned in its third game. There’s also the possibility that WSU’s defense takes it up a notch, as it may have been building this gameplan for the better part of the offseason. If Houston can avoid big losses to stay on schedule, finish drives, and get a big run or two from King, then they can keep this close.
The Coogs will need all of that to keep up with the Cougs offense, which is likely to have another big day against another suspect defense—albeit a better one than WSU has seen. Still, expect WSU to move the ball effectively and gash big plays against Houston. If Wazzu plays a clean game and avoids major mistakes, it should be in good shape to win.
Of course, it’s a short week and the game is on a Friday (the 13th even), so wacky things could happen.