The other side: a look at Houston

The Owls will take on the Houston Cougars tomorrow at noon at Lincoln Financial Field. This will be the first American Athletic Conference game in history. To get some insight into Houston’s team, The Temple News spoke to Chris Shelton, the sports editor of The Daily Cougar, Houston’s student newspaper, about Temple’s opponent this week.

The Temple News: Tony Levine is entering his second full season as head coach, having gone 5-7 in 2012. How confident are the fans that he can bring the Cougars back to a bowl game?

Chris Shelton: A bowl game is the mandate now. After former great Case Keenum gave the UH community a taste of the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s with a 13-1 season in 2011, it’s hard for fans to accept mediocrity again. Tony Levine is a nice guy and everyone with a connection to the program likes him as a person. But he needs to win football games – and he’ll be one of the first people to tell you that.

There’s a lot of pressure surrounding the program with conference realignment possibly still not over and a new stadium opening in 2014. The pressure from the fans to make a change would be high if the Cougars had another losing season.

TTN: Redshirt-junior David Piland saw the majority of the snaps at quarterback in 2012, but freshman John O’Korn got his share of snaps, throwing for three touchdowns, all in the second half of a 62-13 rout against Southern. Will O’Korn get a lot of playing time or does Piland still have the No. 1 job locked down?

CS: That’s the million dollar question. Levine will not release details on the quarterback battle moving forward. When asked what the plan at quarterback will be, Levine said, “you and Temple will find out at the same time.” After last game, Levine said the plan was to play O’Korn during the fourth possession of the game regardless of score and most of the second half. I would expect a similar plan this game.

However, there is more at stake this week in the team’s first conference game. Piland really struggled last season and he has a 7-12 record as a starter — not many people expected him to bounce back after he was benched during the final two games last season. But he had a great spring and earned his job back. We’ll find out who Levine really trusts, because this game should be tight in the second half.

TTN: There was some uncertainty at running back before the season after Charles Sims transferred to West Virginia, but redshirt-sophomore Kenneth Farrow and sophomore Ryan Jackson both had very good games against Southern. Were their performances flukes or are big things expected of them?

CS: Sims was the team’s most important player last season, but the coaching staff didn’t blink when he decided to transfer. They kept telling the media how good these two running backs were. They said Farrow and Jackson were a good complement to each other. Both showed flashes while Sims was injured last season. Their production against Southern wasn’t a fluke, but in UH’s offense, having two rushers nearly eclipse the century mark won’t happen every week.

TTN: Houston’s defense struggled last season, finishing near the bottom of Division I in both yards and points allowed. Do you anticipate an improvement this season?

CS: Last season, the Cougars experimented with the 4-3 scheme, but they didn’t have the talent and size up the middle to be successful at it. New defensive coordinator David Gibbs will run multiple defensive formats. With more talent and leadership this season, the Cougars should be better given Gibbs’ strong college resume. However, the secondary continues to be a concern and Southern didn’t have the size to challenge UH’s run defense. Temple will be a good barometer for the squad.

TTN: Temple’s offensive line had a great game against Notre Dame, especially sophomore center Kyle Friend, who held vaunted senior defensive tackle Louis Nix III to one tackle and no sacks. Do the Cougars have any pass rushers that could hassle redshirt-junior quarterback Connor Reilly?

CS: The team is counting on defensive lineman Joey Mbu to bring pressure up the middle from the tackle/nose guard position. From the linebacker position, much is expected from Eric Eiland (who has a groin injury and won’t play in this game) and Trevor Harris. However, they didn’t get off to a good start. UH didn’t record a sack against Southern.  That doesn’t bode well moving into the thick of the schedule. Last season, the past rush was one of the defense’s biggest issues, and the poor pass rush put the secondary in bad positions. The Cougars’ pass rush will be improved in the new defensive scheme, but it’s still not a strength.

TTN: What’s your prediction?

CS: Houston wins 45-38. This contest has the makings of an offensive shootout on paper. Both teams have talented offenses and somewhat suspect defenses, but I think the Cougars will make a few more stops late in the game to secure a victory. This should be a fun game to watch.

Chris Shelton can be reached at sports@thedailycougar.com or on Twitter @ChrisSheltonTDC.

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