Location: Yulman Stadium - New Orleans, LA
Date: Thursday, October 7
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Records: Houston 4-1 (2-0 AAC), Tulane 1-4 (0-1 AAC)
Betting Line: Houston -3, O/U 63.5
All-Time Series: Houston leads 18-7
Last Meeting: Houston 49, Tulane 31 (October 8, 2020)
Setting the Scene: There’s no matchup the AAC prefers to showcase on a Thursday night more than the battle between programs on the bayou. Houston and Tulane will meet on a Thursday for the fourth consecutive year, and some of those past weeknight contests have produced memorable outcomes — notably Tulane’s 38-31 victory 2019. This is slated to be the first meeting at Yulman Stadium since Jalen McCleskey’s miracle catch-and-run in that bizarre finish.
This year, Houston boasts a 4-1 record while riding a 4-game win streak, outscoring opponents 162-37 over the timeframe. Meanwhile, Tulane’s season is spiraling downward as the Green Wave have suffered 3-straight losses by a combined score of 141-71. The Cougars aim to continue both streaks Thursday night, while Tulane hopes a quality victory can spark a turnaround and renew AAC Championship Game hopes.
From Tulane’s Perspective (Jared Miller): This game isn’t just a much-needed bounce back opportunity, it’s a must win. The Green Wave come limping into this one, having lost three games in a row including last weekend’s surprising defeat at East Carolina. Willie Fritz’s team has not missed a bowl game since 2017 but are already in danger of doing so here in the early goings of October.
If the Green Wave are to rebound on a short week, their defensive play will need to tighten up. Against the Pirates, Tulane’s D surrendered over 600 total yards of offense (302 passing and 310 rushing). ECU running back Keaton Mitchell had his way to the tune of 222 individual yards and its safe to say if that isn’t addressed, Houston running back Alton McCaskill (310 yards, 7 TDs) will be in for a night.
That means the guys on the line... Jeffery Johnson and JoJo Dorceus specifically, will need to be on their toes. The duo has combined for 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks this season but will need to bolster up on Thursday night because if they don’t this game could be over before it really begins.
So too will the Tulane secondary. Macon Clark, who leads the team in tackles with 30, will have his hands full with Cougars receiver Nathaniel Dell. Dell is far and above the stat leader in every major category as he has accumulated 424 yards on 31 catches and has three scores thus far in 2021. Clark, along with fellow DBs Jadon Canady (28 tackles, 1 INT) and Kevin Henry (27 tackles, 1 INT, and 1 TD), will need to be a major part of Fritz’ defensive scheme with guys like Dell on the other side.
Offensively Michael Pratt will also need to play much better than he did a week ago. Against ECU he threw three interceptions, tying the most he’s ever thrown in a single game since being named the starter in 2020. Pratt has shown that he’s capable of being the guy but lately he hasn’t looked like his former self. If he can get it rolling again then Tulane will have a better chance. After all, the kid has thrown 11 touchdowns and ran for four more.
He’ll need help around him. Running back Cameron Carroll hasn’t looked like himself recently as well. Carroll, who rushed for 741 yards in 2020, just got over 200 last week. He hasn’t gotten as many touches as we’re used to seeing but if he can find his footing and help alleviate some pressure for Pratt, Tulane’s offense opens up greatly.
From Houston’s Perspective (Steve Helwick): The team Houston envisioned when it shelled out a 5-year, $20 million contract to Dana Holgorsen on New Year’s Day of 2019 was finally on full display Friday. The Cougars traveled to Tulsa to face a surging Golden Hurricane offense and they left Chapman Stadium on the triumphant side of a 45-10 decimation.
Houston’s defense came up with a resounding performance Friday night by forcing three interceptions and four sacks, while holding Tulsa to a negative rushing total after three quarters. The Cougars defense has quietly produced some of the most spectacular numbers in the FBS this year. Through five games, opponents have only scored more than once on Houston in two halves. Locally renowned as the “Third Ward Defense,” the unit ranks fourth in the country in yards allowed per contest while fielding a top 10 scoring defense — allowing 15 points per game.
The havoc produced on the defensive line cannot be understated. Five different defensive linemen hold multiple sacks to their name this year, and the unit has collectively torn through offensive lines. Tulane’s 5-man front must especially be wary of Derek Parish around the edge and Logan Hall in the interior. Parish’s use of speed and hands to fly past opposing tackles is almost unmatched by any other pass rusher in the AAC, and Hall routinely stuffs opposing halfbacks en route a team-high 4.0 TFLs. Tulane struggled immensely against Houston’s defensive line last October, permitting six sacks and 12 TFLs in an 18-point defeat, so that matchup in the trenches is a major area of advantage for the Cougars.
Houston’s defense also features one of the most electrifying players in the country. Marcus Jones returned to the lineup as a starting cornerback against Tulsa and finished second on the team in tackles while producing a pair of pass breakups in the victory. Jones has utilized his talents at corner in three of Houston’s five games while starting at wide receiver in the other contests. However, with the high number of passing attempts Michael Pratt posts each game for Tulane, the Cougars will likely trot him out on defense this week, as he serves as one the team’s premier coverage specialists.
Jones’ impact stretches far beyond defense. Tied for the FBS lead in punt return touchdowns, the 2020 All-American selection earned AAC Special Teams Player of the Week after nearly taking his third punt of the year to the house at Tulsa. Due to Jones’ exhilarating abilities, Houston punt returns have become one of the greatest spectacles in college football this season, and Tulane may strategize booting it away from No. 8.
The Cougars’ offense is the team’s least consistent phase of the game, but they clicked on many cylinders in Week 4. True freshman Alton McCaskill is one of college football’s rising stars, and the running back accrued a team-high 77 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. While 77 isn’t the most eyebrow-raising number, McCaskill displays expertise in patient running and breaking tackles, which makes him a force when stepping onto the field. Houston’s rushing offense checks in at 95th in the country, but increased McCaskill usage could bolster that ranking.
In terms of the passing game, Houston is enjoying a more consistent version of quarterback Clayton Tune and it’s working wonders for the offense. Through five games, Tune completed over 70 percent of his passes four times. An overwhelming amount of Tune’s passing yardage flies toward Nathaniel Dell’s direction, and the likely All-AAC selection is 20th in receptions and 31st in receiving yards in the FBS, and most importantly, a reliable third down threat. Christian Trahan has also been a rewarding option for Tune, collecting 178 yards on 15 receptions from the tight end position.
Tune must avoid forcing throws, as such passing attempts lead to preventable interceptions. Since tossing four picks in the opening week against Texas Tech, the veteran quarterback has responded with resiliency by recording five touchdowns to just two interceptions in his last four outings. Committing such turnovers forced Houston into a 24-7 deficit against Tulane last year, so if those are held to a minimum, the Cougars’ offense should be in solid condition.
Jared’s Prediction: All around, the Green Wave will just need to play better. Houston is hot right now and, while both teams are working with the same condensed week here, the safer bet is with the team who’s won four straight. Houston’s defense seems as though they’re ready to outpace Pratt and the offense while the Wave’s own defense has too many questions at the moment. Of course Tulane can win this game. They have the talent but with the way things are trending right now, I have to go with the Coogs.
Houston 27, Tulane 17
Steve’s Prediction: The direction of Houston is promising now, and the Cougars have won 4-straight for the first time in the Holgorsen era. Although the offense still needs to establish consistency, the defense is playing lights out right now. Parish and the defensive line should apply plenty of pressure in Tulane’s backfield to prevent the Green Wave from establishing much offensive momentum. On the other side of the ball, Tulane’s defense hasn’t shown enough promise this year to limit either the run or the pass, so Houston’s offense should sustain its production from the prior week. Cougars win five in a row.
Houston 38, Tulane 23