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2021 Week 12 Preview: Memphis Tigers @ Houston Cougars

The Cougars look to finish off AAC play with perfection as Memphis pays a visit Friday night.

NCAA Football: Houston at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Friday, November 19 at 9:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-8.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Houston has 79.9% chance to win
  • All-time series: Houston, 15-14
  • Last meeting: Memphis 30, Houston 27 — December 12, 2020
  • Current streak: Memphis, 5 (2016-20)

Setting the scene

Friday night will mark the first time since 2015 that the Houston Cougars take the field with a College Football Playoff ranking beside their name. At No. 24 in the latest poll, Houston aims to protect TDECU Stadium and claim its 10th consecutive victory to finish undefeated in AAC play. There’s a lot to play for on the other sideline. Memphis currently holds the longest bowl eligibility streak in the AAC, qualifying for the postseason every season since 2014. At 5-5 with two opportunities remaining, the Tigers are in desperate search of one more victory to keep the trend in tact.


Houston Cougars outlook

The Cougars haven’t tasted a loss since Labor Day weekend. Last Saturday in Philadelphia, a 37-8 thrashing of Temple secured Houston a spot in the AAC Championship Game for the first time since 2015.

The win was a testament of the dominance Houston has displayed offensively and defensively throughout its 9-game win streak. Offensively, it was the team’s sixth consecutive game surpassing the 30-point barrier. Defensively, it was the fewest points allowed in AAC play this season.

Quarterback Clayton Tune continued to usher in his elevated level of play. Over the past five games, Tune has thrown multiple touchdowns and zero interceptions each time. His completion percentage for the season rounds to 70 percent, and he has yet to experience an inefficient game during the win streak. Tune’s mistake-free football has led Houston to a top 10 scoring offense in the country, and he’s becoming a more complete product with each passing week.

Houston has given him more freedom in the running game recently, as he continues to progress from an early-season lower body injury. Last time Tune battled Memphis at TDECU Stadium, his wheels were on display as he raced for a career-long 68-yard touchdown. While the mobility is present within the quarterback, it is more likely Houston utilizes Alton McCaskill and Ta’Zhawn Henry to guide the run game. The Cougars have vastly improved on the ground in the past two outings, as McCaskill broke his career-high in yardage in consecutive games — venturing for 129 yards and two touchdowns at Temple.

NCAA Football: Houston at South Florida
Running back Alton McCaskill has 254 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns in his last two games.
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

In the passing game, the Cougars spread the wealth more than usual at Temple. If there’s one target Memphis’ 107th ranked pass defense must focus on, it’s Nathaniel Dell. Dell recorded back-to-back 160-yard games against SMU and South Florida and his ability to shed man coverage downfield makes him an issue. But Houston has viable targets on all levels, including a pair of standout tight ends. While Christian Trahan thrives as Tune’s second-most targeted option this year, Minnesota transfer tight end Seth Green made rounds in the offense with season-highs seven receptions and 74 yards last Saturday.

Two weeks ago, Houston’s “Sack Ave.” branded defense ranked first in the country in producing sacks. After combining for one sack in their last two wins, the Cougars have fallen to six, but the threat of a dominant pass rush still lies within the unit. But Houston exchanged sacks for stops last week by forcing six three-and-outs on Temple’s first eight drives.

Two-way containment of the ground and air has been an area of excellence for Dana Holgorsen’s team in 2021. Houston ranks 18th in passing defense and eighth in rushing defense. The Cougars are also 16th in the country in forcing turnovers and cornerback Marcus Jones is particularly excelling in this area at the moment. Jones — mostly renowned for his four kick/punt return touchdowns this year — has shined as a coverage corner with three interceptions in the last three weeks.

While Jones serves as the most dangerous return man in the country, Houston’s special teams can be a double-edged sword. Opponents have scored kick return touchdowns on the Cougars three times over the last three games, and unsurprisingly, Houston ranks bottom 10 in kick return coverage in the FBS.


Memphis Tigers outlook

Memphis is coming off a rare defeat. The Tigers just dropped their first AAC game at the Liberty Bowl since 2018, snapping a 13-game win streak. It came down to the final play in overtime. Ryan Silverfield gambled for a 2-point attempt to seal the victory, but the ball was batted around the end zone and East Carolina knocked it down. Now, Memphis is back to .500 and must manufacture a major upset to prevent wielding its first losing record at any point in a season since 2013.

Last time Memphis was presented with such stakes, the Tigers successfully triumphed. Two weeks ago, Memphis handed SMU its second loss of the year fueled by second half turnovers and heavy doses of Seth Henigan.

Since returning from injury in the SMU game, Henigan has thrown for 625 yards and five touchdowns. While the loss to ECU wasn’t the true freshman’s strongest showing from an accuracy standpoint, Henigan brought a layer of mobility to his game which was previously unforeseen. The youngster nearly doubled his career-high with 61 rushing yards, and the opportunity to match that is on the table — as the last two quarterbacks Houston has faced have combined for 124 rushing yards.

At the beginning of the season, Memphis was comfortable handing the ball off to Brandon Thomas 15-20 times per game and watching the back break through for 100-yard performances. The ground-and-pound was a feature of Ryan Silverfield’s team in the early going, but the dynamic of the offense shifted around midseason. Halfbacks combined for 11 carries and 46 yards against East Carolina and for six carries and 18 yards against UCF. Thomas, Rodrigues Clark, Asa Martin, and Marquavius Weaver have all split carries in recent weeks with no regular No. 1 option.

Memphis called passes more frequently than runs in both games since Henigan’s return. Airing it out certainly has its advantages, and one of them is targeting Calvin Austin III. After five consecutive games over 100 yards in the first half of the season, Austin is looking to replicate that output as his season — and time at Memphis — comes to a conclusion. The sight of TDECU Stadium is certainly a welcome one for the All-AAC talent, as his walk-on status was upgraded to a scholarship there two years ago following a 5-reception, 81-yard breakout performance.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Central Florida
Calvin Austin III scored receiving touchdowns in both of his previous meetings vs. Houston.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis is not renowned for its defense, but the unit has steadily progressed with time this year. The Tigers have not allowed more than 30 points in their last four outings. Stepping up in the turnover game has been one quality allowing the defense to improve in recent weeks. Memphis is one of 18 FBS teams that forces fewer than one takeaway per game but in the past two weeks, the Tigers have obtained five combined interceptions and fumble recoveries.

Improving a turnover margin which is tied for 15th worst in the country should be a focal point for Memphis. The Tigers defense features just five interceptions on the entire season, and cornerbacks Jacobi Francis and Greg Rubin must force Clayton Tune into an errant game for optimal hope of an upset bid, as Houston’s lone defeat this season featured four interceptions.


Prediction

The matchup of Houston’s receiving corps against Memphis’ secondary is an interesting one which is slated to go in the Cougars’ favor. But games aren’t won on paper and the Tigers knocked off a similarly potent passing offense two weeks ago when SMU paid a visit.

However, this game is not at the Liberty Bowl and Houston’s offense has taken on a new level of versatility with Alton McCaskill starring in the run game. The Cougars have weapons all across the board at the skill positions which continues to bode well for their offense. On the other side of things, Memphis has a mysterious disappearance of its run game and the passing game must operate without copious amounts of pressure from Houston’s defensive line. That might be a lot to ask for Friday night, so expect the Cougars to capitalize on their litany of advantages to extend the streak to 10.

Prediction: Houston 38, Memphis 23