The Houston Cougars are one of the hottest teams in the land. In back-to-back weeks, they’ve invaded neighboring states and left with comfortable victories — upending Tulsa 45-10 last Friday before taking down Tulane 40-22 on Thursday night.
The road to victory in New Orleans wasn’t the smoothest trail as the Cougars found themselves trailing in the second half. But behind a dominant pass rush and mistake-free offensive play, the Cougars rallied with 23 unanswered points to improve to 5-1 on the year and 3-0 in AAC play. With five consecutive victories, Houston extends its longest win streak of the Dana Holgorsen era and has already secured its highest win total since 2018.
Bowl eligibility seems like a longshot for Tulane at this point. The Green Wave, after nearly upending Oklahoma in Week 1, have dropped four consecutive contests and still await their first FBS victory of the season. At 1-5, Tulane can only afford one more loss or else the team will miss bowl season for the first time since 2017.
In a battle between programs trending in opposite directions, here are three takeaways from Thursday night’s action:
Sack Ave. is the busiest street in the AAC
When Houston’s players celebrated on the field at Yulman Stadium on Thursday night, defensive end D’Anthony Jones held a street sign which read “Sack Ave.” in the aftermath of the 18-point victory.
Sack Ave., indeed, was the street which Tulane couldn’t turn out of throughout the course of the night. Houston recorded eight sacks against the Green Wave, signifying the program’s highest output since registering 11 sacks on Lamar Jackson to eliminate Louisville from the College Football Playoff in 2016.
The Cougars already entered the game ranked 13th in the country and first in the AAC by producing 3.4 sacks per game and that number inflated after the defensive line had their way with Tulane in the trenches on every snap. Derek Parish, Logan Hall, David Anenih, and D’Anthony Jones were at the forefront of it all. These defensive linemen consistently swatted away opposing blocks, pushed over o-linemen, or simply skated past them on the way to Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt.
When Houston was in desperate need of momentum, trailing 22-17 in the early minutes of the third quarter, Sack Ave. rolled out the red carpet to the quarterback. D’Anthony Jones brought down Pratt for a loss of 19 yards and popped the ball to the turf. Although Jones had a scoop-and-score opportunity, he dove on the loose ball as a security measure. Houston wound up with a field goal to slice the deficit, but the Cougars still were trailing.
So they called on Sack Ave. again, and the defensive line continued to deliver. Derek Parish thwarted Tulane’s ensuing drive with a crucial third down sack and Houston’s offense responded with a go-ahead touchdown. Next defensive drive, to preserve the lead, Logan Hall wrapped up Pratt to force a third and long on the following possession. After a Tulane punt, Houston’s offense once again capitalized with a touchdown and never looked back.
This wasn’t a one-game show for the Cougars. The prowess of the defensive line has been on display all year long, and Sack Ave. might become a common street for AAC teams to get trapped on for the remainder of the season.
Fourth down gambling did not pay off
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians popularized the phrase, “No risk it, no biscuit” during his tenure with the Arizona Cardinals. A simple probability course which stresses the concept of expected value could persuade coaches to increase willingness to go for fourth downs. It appeared Dana Holgorsen and Willie Fritz were students of that course Thursday night.
However, both defenses were well-prepared to step up to the moment and stifle any fourth down attempts. Houston finished 1-for-2 while Tulane converted on 2-of-5 tries. But what did all four of those missed fourth down calls have in common? They resulted in immediate touchdowns by the opponent.
Tulane attempted a 4th and 2 just beyond midfield on its opening drive, and the team fought past the sticks on a 3-yard completion. But the luck ran out on a 4th and 3 several plays later, and Houston took over on downs at the 36-yard line. Less than three minutes of clock exhausted before the Cougars found themselves in end zone, capitalizing on decent field position.
Most coaches would have attempted a fourth down where Tulane did, but Houston’s opening drive of the third quarter presented a much riskier scenario. The Cougars failed to convert 2nd and 1, as well as 3rd and 1, from their own 29-yard line. On 4th and 1, Holgorsen sent out the offense but running back Alton McCaskill was met with force before he could reach the line of scrimmage. One play later, Michael Pratt connected with tight end Will Wallace for a 29-yard score to hand Tulane its first lead of the night.
The next case study also transpired in the offense’s own territory. Trailing by four in the early fourth quarter, Tulane tested its luck on a 4th and 2 from its own 40, but Pratt’s pass fell incomplete. Houston utilized the advantageous field position to jump to a multi-score lead, which would not be relinquished. With roughly three minutes remaining in an 11-point game, Tulane once again threw an incomplete pass on fourth and short around midfield, and the Cougars responded with a touchdown.
Of the seven fourth down attempts in the game, only one Houston try in the late third quarter extended a drive which resulted in points. Considering how prepared both defenses were to combat short-yardage situations, instead of Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” mantra, perhaps John Heisman’s famous words, “When in doubt, punt” may have been more effective for both teams Thursday night.
Clayton Tune is playing the best football of his career
What was the Cougars’ most pressing issue in the 2020 season? They threw a ton of picks. Starting quarterback Clayton Tune finished the year with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in an 8-game sample size. And he appeared on track to replicate or surpass that interception rate after tossing four interceptions in an opening week loss to Texas Tech — a night the Cougars would love a second chance at now.
But after the defeat at the hands of the Red Raiders, Dana Holgorsen stated he was confident in his quarterback, and the players rallied around Tune and had his back through the difficult time. Since Week 1, Tune has limited himself to two interceptions in his last five outings while firing seven touchdown passes. His accuracy skyrocketed from a 59.6 completion percentage in 2020 to the 71.3 percentage he owns this season. Tune is unquestionably taking better care of the ball, but most importantly, he is making smarter throws.
Ever since an apparent hamstring injury in Week 2 against Rice, Tune has limited his rushing attempts, but he is still exhibiting mobility. Tune faced heaps of pressure all night against Tulane, but he locked eyes with his targets and delivered many sharp throws before going to the ground. In fact, his two first quarter touchdown passes were on-the-run darts to the right corner of the end zone — throws that appeared much easier on the telecast than they are in reality.
It is worth noting Tulane dropped one surefire pick six Thursday night, but Tune still finished the game with zero interceptions, and that statistic goes a long way for the Cougars’ hopes of victory. With season-highs in yardage (288) and touchdown passes (3), the trip to New Orleans resulted in Tune’s best performance of the 2021 season. If he can build on this showing and continue to play mistake-free football, Houston fits the mold as a contender for an AAC Championship Game spot to presumably face Cincinnati in an up-for-grabs year for the conference.