Time and Date: Friday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Chapman Stadium — Tulsa, OK
Spread: Tulsa (-4.5)
ESPN FPI: Tulsa has 57.6% chance to win
All-time series: Houston leads, 25-19
Last meeting: Houston 24, Tulsa 14 — November 23, 2019
It’s the featured Friday night game on ESPN’s flagship network. Chaos always seems to reign on Friday nights at Chapman Stadium, as recent games include Tulsa’s 2019 upset over UCF and the controversial finish against East Carolina last season. Last year’s chapter of the Houston-Tulsa rivalry was glossed over due to COVID-19 cancelations, but the western AAC foes are back on the field together to usher in October football.
Houston got an early head start to a 1-0 AAC record after roaring back to take down Navy last Saturday night. Before any other team has the chance to play their first AAC game, the Cougars can already improve to 2-0, on track to compete for their first conference title since 2015. On the other sideline, Tulsa aims to shake off a lackluster non-conference slate and start on the right foot in league play. The Golden Hurricane defended their home turf last Saturday to snap the program’s 5-game losing skid, and they’ll hope the victory over Arkansas State produces a ripple effect. They look to snap Houston’s 3-game win streak and topple the Cougars for the first time in four years.
Houston Cougars outlook
In terms of sheer record, things have never looked sharper in the Dana Holgorsen era. The current 3-game streak is the longest of Holgorsen’s Houston career. Although the opponents of Rice, Navy, and Grambling of the FCS combine for a 2-9 record this year without a win over an FBS opponent, the Cougars spent the last three weeks learning more about themselves as they prepare to leave the confines of Houston for the first time this fall.
Last week was a rather revealing for Houston, but plenty of resilience and adjustments were on full display in the 28-20 comeback win against Navy. Trailing 17-7 in the late third quarter, Houston solved Navy’s defense with a series of quick passes and strong offensive line play to bolster the run game. Additionally, the Cougars defense countered the triple option with noticeable improvement as the game progressed. After allowing 224 yards in the first half, the clamps were cranked up and Navy managed 64 yards and failed to generate a single third down conversion in the final two frames.
One week after injuring his hamstring, Clayton Tune returned to action as the starting quarterback. A shaky offensive start was corrected around halftime when Tune exposed the flaws in the Navy defense. The Midshipmen routinely left the flats for the taking, causing the Cougars to complete easy check downs for considerable chunks of yardage each play. Tune completed 18 of his final 21 passes as a result and enjoyed one of his more efficient days as a Cougar.
Two targets stand above the rest when it comes to Tune’s preferred options. Wide receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell is second in the AAC in receptions at the moment with 25. Dell has particularly excelled as the go-to threat in the middle of the field on third downs this year — a major reason why the Cougars have converted over 45 percent of third downs against FBS opponents. Christian Trahan also serves as a reliable good-hands tight end. The 6’3” junior led the team in receptions and yards against Navy, and he is tied for 16th in the FBS among tight ends in catches this year.
Versatile weapon Marcus Jones has assisted Houston’s offense as a starting receiver in two games this year. But expect Jones to revert to his primary role of cornerback given Tulsa’s affinity to air it out. Holgorsen referred to Jones as one of the team’s best cover guys in last Saturday’s postgame press conference and stated his experience on offense against Rice and Navy was more circumstantial than a permanent fixture.
The run game (currently tied for 103rd in the FBS in rushing average) struggled to start the season, but the Cougars are slowly figuring things out on the ground. They recently settled on labeling true freshman Alton McCaskill as the feature halfback, and McCaskill delivered rushing performances of 74 and 114 yards in his last two outings while proving to be a valuable option in the receiving game. Houston also worked Texas Tech transfer Ta’Zhawn Henry in the rotation as McCaskill’s primary running mate. Henry earned season-highs in carries and yards last week, chipping in two touchdowns in the comeback win over Navy.
The designation for the best pass rush in the AAC currently belongs to the Cougars. With the loss of first round draft pick Payton Turner, other names were required to step up in this facet, and that has certainly transpired. Houston is consistently recording around three sacks every game, and the defensive linemen assert their will in the trenches on a weekly basis. Defensive ends Derek Parish and David Anenih and defensive tackle Latrell Bankston combine for 6.5 sacks this season. Parish was especially instrumental in blowing up Navy’s ground game with a team-best 12 tackles last Saturday, so look for him to meet the Tulsa running backs at the first level.
Secondary play will be more important this week against the Golden Hurricane, so Jones’ presence at cornerback will be vital. One point of emphasis for the defensive backs — and the defense as a whole — should be forcing turnovers. Tulsa is tied for 11th in the country in interceptions thrown per contest. Picking off passes was a rarity for the Cougars defense a year ago, so capitalizing on opportunities to improve that number should help turn the tide of this game.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane outlook
A collective sigh of relief was let out on the plains last weekend as Tulsa drained the final 6:34 of clock to make a long-awaited appearance in the win column. A dark cloud may still follow the Golden Hurricane after they inexplicably lost to an FCS opponent in Week 1, but the group has definitely improved since that dreary defeat. They provided a substantial scare to Oklahoma State and competed with Ohio State for over a half. There are plenty of signs from their final three non-conference games to suggest this team has the ability to make a splash in AAC play once again.
Don’t be fooled by the box score. Tulsa’s defensive performance in the 41-34 win over Arkansas State was rather sharp, but a punt return touchdown and a kick return touchdown inflated the Red Wolves’ scoring output. The Golden Hurricane stifled Arkansas State to just 38 rushing yards on 26 attempts. Those low rushing numbers can also be attributed to the dominant pass rush Tulsa manufactured. Led by defensive end Cullen Wick, the team amassed six sacks after entering the evening with only four sacks in its previous three games.
Similar to Houston, Tulsa presents no shortage of firepower in its defensive line. Jaxon Player, the man in the middle of the 3-4 unit, might be the most dangerous for opposing offensive linemen. Player garnered First Team All-AAC honors in 2020 and is still pushing around and flying past interior linemen in 2021 with 3.5 tackles for loss this year.
The secondary hasn’t been quite as forceful. Tulsa currently falls nearly the lower end of the spectrum as the 94th ranked pass defense, yielding 247.5 yards per game. This is in stark contrast to 2020 when Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans manned the cornerback positions before both transferring to Missouri over the offseason. The Golden Hurricane allow an opponent completion percentage hovering around 65 percent, signifying that Dell and the Houston receiving group shouldn’t have much issue finding openings down the field throughout the night.
Offensively, the passing game is one of Tulsa’s greatest assets. First-year starting quarterback Davis Brin showed us a glimpse of his capabilities when leading the Golden Hurricane to a bizarre comeback over Tulane last season. After working out the kinks in his first two starts of 2021, Brin is now scorching defenses. He posted 428 yards passing on Ohio State’s defense and followed that up by airing it out for 355 yards on 17 completions against Arkansas State. Once Brin eliminates the interceptions from his game, the junior truly has potential to attain All-AAC status this season.
It certainly helps that Brin operates with one of the most loaded, experienced receiving corps in college football. Josh Johnson, Sam Crawford Jr., and JuanCarlos Santana have all been major contributors for the program since 2019. All three receivers have 230+ yards this year, and they’re all strong route runners and capable deep threats. At full strength, the Golden Hurricane would also send out longtime wideout Keylon Stokes, but Stokes’ status for Friday is unknown after not dressing for the Arkansas State game.
In the rushing game, it’s a one-two punch for Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane return Shamari Brooks for 2021 after he missed the entire 2020 campaign with an ACL tear days before the opener. Brooks’ recovery has been inspiring and he leads the team with 292 rushing yards through four games. Not too far behind is Deneric Prince with 289 yards this year. At 6’1” and 214 pounds, Prince is a human version of a Mack Truck when he runs and his ability to plow through defenders is unmatched throughout the rest of the AAC.
Lastly, it is important to note that Tulsa’s recurring issue of being one of the most penalized teams in the country still stands. They bore that unfortunate crown for drawing the most penalties in the 2019 season, and they remain in contention for that title two years later. Tulsa currently sits at third in the FBS with 39 penalties and fourth in penalty yardage at 367. In a game which could shape up to be a shootout, giving up and losing yardage via yellow flags can be especially costly as every scoring opportunity is crucial.
Tulsa is 1-3. Houston is 3-1. Yet, Tulsa is favored by 4.5 points. That can be explained by the fact that Tulsa unquestionably fought through a more grueling non-conference schedule and even displayed competitiveness against ranked opponents.
Tulsa’s offense is trending in an upward direction after two consecutive phenomenal showings. With a strong two-deep backfield and a gunslinger in Brin, the Golden Hurricane are finally in rhythm on that side of the ball. They rank top 50 in both passing and rushing offense, so Houston will have its hands full containing the myriad of skill position stars Tulsa presents.
Houston hasn’t proven the ability to dominate a game through the run this year. Tulsa’s ground defense served as a perfect barrier to Arkansas State, so the Golden Hurricane shouldn’t face too much trouble stalling Houston at the line of scrimmage. Thus, the Cougars may put a heavy load on Tune to jump-start the offense, and they’ll require a stellar passing performance from their quarterback. Turnovers have been an issue plaguing the passing game this season, so the Cougars must prove they’re past that stage in order to emerge victorious on the road.
Still, I believe this has the makings of a close finish, as Friday nights in Tulsa typically do. The Golden Hurricane slightly edge the Cougars to win their eighth consecutive AAC regular season game.
Prediction: Tulsa 38, Houston 34