- Time and date: Saturday, October 29 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Houston (-17.5)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 86.7% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 6-2
- Last meeting: Houston 54, South Florida 42 — November 6, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 6 (2013-21)
Setting the scene
Is Houston turning the corner? The Cougars have inspired plenty of confidence in their last two games, roaring back from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit to shock Memphis and then rolling past Navy to improve to 4-3. With only one conference loss, the preseason AAC favorites remain in the hunt.
Houston returns home for the first time since September to face a struggling South Florida squad which is one of three FBS programs without an FBS victory in 2022. The Bulls are refreshed after their bye week, and they’ll have one final shot to defeat Houston for the first and only time as AAC opponents — as the Cougars won all six matchups since the conference’s establishment in 2013.
South Florida Bulls outlook
In order to secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018, South Florida must finish 5-0. Given the program’s recent results, that seems like a long shot, but the Bulls have brought their best in 2022 against their toughest competition. South Florida’s game-winning drive against Florida at The Swamp was stymied by a bad snap and the game-winning drive against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium concluded on a 4th and 1 failure from the Bearcats’ 25-yard line.
But every time Jeff Scott’s team appears to turn the corner in year three at the helm, the Bulls revert to square one. Outside of the aforementioned losses, South Florida has allowed 40+ to FBS opponents with each losing margin separated by double-digits. But the team’s problems right now are greater than just the defense’s scoring allotment.
“When you look at their record, it is very misleading,” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said. “These guys are coached very well schematically. They’ve had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup and battle injuries and had to overcome a lot of things with the hurricane and had a very difficult schedule up to this point. But the talent is there. It’s what you think of when you think of Florida speed and the talent they have on the perimeter.”
In its most recent outing at Tulane, quarterback Gerry Bohanon was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Bohanon, the starter of Baylor’s 2021 Sugar Bowl champion squad, had been one of the Bulls’ bright spots this fall, toppling the 100-yard mark as a rusher twice while throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns against East Carolina. Without Bohanon, South Florida turns to Katravis Marsh, who threw two touchdown passes to conclude the Tulane game. Marsh is connecting on a 42 percent completion clip this season on 26 attempts, so improving that accuracy will be a focal point going forward.
“With Bohanon, this could have been the most explosive capable offense that we have played,” Belk said. “Marsh has played, the guy that we expect to start. Dual-threat guy, strong-armed, does a lot of things well — it will be interesting to see how they use him.”
Elsewhere in the unit, South Florida trots out several players Houston is well aware of from last year’s 54-42 offensive-oriented shootout. Xavier Weaver posted over 100 receiving yards on the Cougars in 2021, and the team’s leading receiver looks for another stellar showing against Houston’s 97th-ranked pass defense. To boost the rushing, the Bulls hope for a stampede from Brian Battie, who produces 6.1 yards per carry behind one of the AAC’s most cohesive offensive lines (which allows under one sack per game). In addition to his rushing success, Battie is one of the top return specialists in the country, and Houston is well-aware after he brought two kickoff returns to the house in last November’s meeting.
“This bunch we’re about to play — we all know what happened last year,” Holgorsen said, referencing Battie’s two kickoff return touchdowns in the prior matchup. “If you think that we’re not going to obsess over kickoff, we’re going to obsess over kickoff. We’ve got to get that fixed. It’s not just the Battie kid. The (Jimmy) Horn kid back there has an 89-yarder for a touchdown this year two. So two dudes back there that are dangerous and we’ve got to fix kickoff.”
As a defense, there’s all-around improvement to be made after yielding the sixth-most points per game in the FBS through seven games. Teams tend to run the ball at will on the Bulls, accumulating 5.7 yards per carry and on a game average hovering around 221 yards. But it’s pick your poison for opposing offenses, as South Florida also surrenders the third-highest completion rate in the FBS, permitting teams to complete 70 percent of passes.
So when South Florida nearly beat Florida and Cincinnati, what did the defense do differently? In both of those outings, the Bulls held quarterbacks under 200 passing yards while forcing multiple turnovers. Thus in order to emerge victorious Saturday, South Florida will rely on an outstanding day from the secondary, as well as havoc caused by outside linebacker Dwayne Boyles, who has 7.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and an interception this year.
Houston Cougars outlook
For the first time in 2022, the Cougars are on a multi-game win streak. Houston, a team no stranger to bizarre finishes this year, welcomed its most convincing victory of 2022 by flying past Navy in 38-20 fashion. Now, the Cougars are back in the thick of the AAC race as they return to TDECU Stadium for the first time in about a month.
“We’ve been in some bad spots because of close losses, but it never felt like we lost the team or the pulse wasn’t there or the work ethic wasn’t there,” Holgorsen said. “I think we’ve got really good character on this team and kept fighting.”
Quarterback Clayton Tune has been handling snaps for Houston as a starter since 2019, but Tune never experienced a day like he had at Navy before. The longtime Cougar set a new personal-best with five touchdown passes, and his last two contests have been his best two of 2022 — attaining a combined 627 passing yards and eight passing touchdowns versus the Memphis and Navy defenses. Tune is also utilizing his mobility more than ever, breaking away for a double-digit run in six of seven games this year with 254 rushing yards under his belt.
It’s always been a next-man-up mentality in the running back room for the Cougars. Alton McCaskill went down preseason and Ta’Zhawn Henry underwent midseason surgery, so now Brandon Campbell and Stacy Sneed carry the load in the backfield. Campbell has been consistent since transferring from USC with a team-high 334 rushing yards on the year. But Houston also now has a need for Sneed after the halfback’s career-high 100-yard outing against Navy, so expect the freshman to be more involved in the running game after piercing through a stout Midshipmen ground defense.
“You’re not supposed to be able to run the ball against Navy,” Holgorsen said. “It starts up front. I’m critical of those guys when it doesn’t look good and I’m gonna pat them on the back when it does. We improved our pad level and we blocked better, tight ends included... Stacy looked like a real running back. He got yards that weren’t there probably for the first time all year.”
Establishing the run game is important, but Houston’s offense operates at its peak when the Tune to Tank Dell connection is hitting. That is exactly how Houston came out last week, and the Cougars generated their first halftime lead of the season thanks to two touchdown passes from Tune to the reigning First Team All-AAC receiver in the first half. After finding the end zone six times in a four-game span, Dell now leads the AAC in receiving touchdowns.
“It’s a blessing playing with him,” wide receiver Sam Brown said of Dell. “Just seeing his work ethic in practice and his demeanor in game — it boosts me up to another level. It’s a blessing playing with Tune and Tank, just them having a dynamic duo and Tune being as accurate and the competitor that he is. That’s all I can ask for in a quarterback and it’s the same thing with Tank.”
But it’s also important for Tune to find options without becoming over-reliant on Dell, and the quarterback has done a great job getting more receivers involved lately. While true freshman Matthew Golden and USC transfer Joseph Manjack IV sit out with injury, another newcomer has carved out a significant role in the offense. Brown, the West Virginia transfer, first made a name for himself as a ferocious blocker, but the receiver has become an ideal short yardage threat with 18 receptions and two touchdowns in his last three data points.
“I pride myself on blocking,” Brown said. “I pride myself on having a good all-around game, not just catching the ball. I try to be the best on the field in all positions.”
Although injury-riddled, Houston’s defense has remained strong throughout the season due to the depth on its defensive line. Nelson Ceaser and D’Anthony Jones have brought significant pressure from the defensive end spots, combining for 6.5 sacks this year, while Chidozie Nwankwo serves as a disruptive force in the middle of the defensive line — which was highly noticeable against Navy’s triple option offense. Houston’s sack-happy defensive line will face a challenge against a sturdy South Florida offensive line, but the Cougars can make their mark on other areas on defense with Donavan Mutin’s stellar tackling from the middle linebacker spot and Jayce Rogers’ playmaking in the secondary. Mutin
“We played great on defense and that’s largely due to Donavan Mutin,” Holgorsen said, referencing Mutin’s 13-tackle performance in Week 8. “He was able to some of that because of Dot (Nwankwo). Our d-line played good — disruptive, couldn’t block them... Dot’s just different. He does a thankless job. He takes on double teams. He actually split the double team a couple of times and made a play.
Houston’s offense has been fairly consistent this season, garnering between 30 and 38 points in six of its seven games this year. Given the stature of the South Florida defense, the Cougars should be able to add a few extra scoring opportunities in their return to TDECU Stadium. Expect another productive day from Clayton Tune, who threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns on the Bulls last November, but also, Houston’s rushing game should generate some of its best numbers of the season against the Bulls.
South Florida prepares for its first full game without Gerry Bohanon, which means the offense could take a step back. Even with Bohanon out of the mix, the receiving duo of Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. should do enough damage against the Cougars’ short-handed secondary to thrust the Bulls into the end zone on multiple occasions. Still, Houston wins convincingly.
Prediction: Houston 42, South Florida 17