- Time and date: Friday, September 30 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: Houston (-2.5)
- ESPN FPI: Tulane has 53.4% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 19-7
- Last meeting: Houston 40, Tulane 22 — October 7, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 2 (2020-21)
Setting the scene
Tulane vs. Houston is the most weeknight game in college football. Here’s some fun trivia — when was the last time the Green Wave and Cougars squared off on a Saturday? The answer is 2017. In fact, this is the first time these programs have met outside of a Thursday since then.
“There’s a lot of hype around the game,” Tulane center Sincere Haynesworth said. “Houston, they’re right down the road, probably the closest to us. We always play them on a primetime game, Thursday or Friday night, big lights. It’s always a big game for us.”
Tulane carries a 3-1 record into Friday night’s matchup after a mixed bag of results in non-conference play. After upsetting Kansas State in Manhattan, the Green Wave looked on track to become the lone AAC to finish non-conference play unscathed, but Southern Miss caught them by surprise last Saturday night in a 27-24 fashion.
Houston enters at 2-2 after a very chaotic non-conference slate which featured two multi-overtime games and a close finish against Rice which came down to one final snap on the 9-yard line. The Cougars gained some momentum after defeating their crosstown rival last Saturday and they’ll hope to leverage that into a 1-0 AAC start.
Last October when the programs met, Houston’s ability to invade Tulane’s backfield was the defining story. The Cougars overcame an early third quarter deficit to throttle the Green Wave, 40-22, thanks to eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss from the defense.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane secured the AAC’s most impressive non-conference victory of 2022, knocking off Kansas State in Manhattan. The No. 25 Wildcats have pieced together an impressive résumé when facing teams outside of the Green Wave, shellacking Missouri 40-12 and knocking off Oklahoma on the road, 41-34. Kansas State’s impressive start to the season could have sparked discussion about Tulane’s presence in the rankings, but the Green Wave couldn’t hold up their side of the deal — falling 27-24 to Southern Miss after being outscored 17-0 in the first 29 minutes of the second half.
“Obviously we’re disappointed,” head coach Willie Fritz said in a Tuesday press conference. “You can’t sit here and gravel in past successes or pout when you don’t have the outcome that you want. You’re gonna live in the present and be the very best you can be every day. So we’ve turned the page on it.”
When looking at the box score, it’s a pretty jarring loss for Tulane. The Green Wave out-gained the Golden Eagles by 198 yards, fared significantly better on third down, hogged up 60 percent of possession time, and drew just two penalties. But a costly pick-six in the fourth quarter, as well as a blocked field goal and blocked punt, proved to be the difference.
“You can overcome it if it our offense scores on those opportunities and they didn't,” Fritz said. “The combination of the two made it tough for us to win. It’s all three sides of the ball and we’ve got to understand that.”
Typically, it’s Tulane’s defense coming up with the home run plays to swing a game’s result. That’s exactly what happened in Manhattan when it stopped Kansas State on four of five fourth down attempts, showing impressive commitment to tackling on first contact. The linebacking corps, led by senior inside linebacker Nick Anderson, has been sensational in containing the run. That was the case even in a loss to Southern Miss, as the Golden Eagles collected just 59 rushing yards on 27 attempts — and Tulane didn’t even register a single sack to influence those numbers.
The Green Wave also hold No. 1 designation in a major defensive category. No team allows fewer passing yardage per game than the unit led by second-year defensive coordinator Chris Hampton. Teams are rather pass-averse against Tulane, however, attempting roughly 20 passes per game — the second lowest mark in the country. Still, the Green Wave allow a 58 percent completion rate and average one defensive interception per game, further proving the merit of the secondary. That unit will be tested against veteran quarterback Clayton Tune, who flourished against the Green Wave last season with 288 yards and three touchdowns.
“We can’t let him sit in the pocket. We can’t let him scramble outside the pocket,” defensive end Keith Cooper Jr. said. “The d-line, we’ve got to focus on maintaining rush lanes, keeping pressure on him. If he has a bad game, the whole offense shuts down, so that’s what we’re focused to do.”
Tulane’s defense is stellar all-around, but if there’s one area for improvement, the Green Wave need the one thing Houston is renowned for — pass rush. The Green Wave are tied for the 11st lowest average sack total in the country at 1.0 per game, but they’ll have more opportunities at sacks Friday night as the Cougars are certain to drop back to pass way more than 20 times.
“We know if the d-line whoops the o-line, this game should be pretty good, defensively,” Cooper said.
On offense, the Green Wave are led by third-year quarterback Michael Pratt, who has displayed noticeable progress in all facets of his game. Pratt is witnessing his completion rate rise to a career-high 63.5 while his rushing numbers simultaneously skyrocket. After averaging 1.7 yards per carry as a runner in 2020 and 2021, the junior has boosted that number to 5.2 this year, allowing Tulane to become more multidimensional on offense. But in order for Pratt to thrive at Houston, the offensive line must be sound on their assignments against the Cougars’ heralded defensive line.
“That’s their MO, trying to get after the quarterback. They’ve got their whole ‘Sack Avenue’ thing going on,” center Sincere Haynesworth said. “We’ve got to prepare and work hard for everything that they bring. They want to get after the quarterback. We’ve got to be ready for that.”
Through a third of the regular season, the Green Wave have enjoyed tremendous balance on offense. The team has deviated from its option principles in the past few seasons under Fritz, electing for a more modern rushing profile. In this scheme, running back Tyjae Spears has headlined the attack with team-highs of 205 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, running back Iverson Celestine (163 yards) and Pratt (197 yards) have assisted Spears in propelling the run game to make it the third most productive in the AAC.
“He takes care of business and it feels good to know if we do our thing, he’s gonna do 10 times better,” Haynesworth said of Spears. “He’s gonna do what he’s there to do. He’s 22. He’s Tyjae Spears. It’s what he does.”
The passing game has been relatively middle-of-the-road, but Tulane presents a litany of viable options rather than featuring a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. Shea Wyatt and Jha’Quan Jackson are the main targets Pratt will look toward to cut into Houston’s struggling pass defense, but Maryland transfer Dea Dea McDougle is an emerging threat who could cause additional damage for the Green Wave.
Houston Cougars outlook
Houston entered the 2022 season with New Year’s Six and AAC championship hopes after faring 12-2 with a No. 16 ranking to end the prior year. Of the five AAC champions to qualify for the New Year’s Six, none have entered with multiple losses. While that goal now becomes an uphill battle, Houston still has its AAC title hopes in front of it. The Cougars won all eight regular season conference battles last year, gaining considerable momentum after their 40-22 thrashing of Tulane in early October.
“They’re resilient, they’re tough, they’re hard-nosed, they’re well-coached,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of Tulane. “They’re similar from a teams perspective to what we’ve seen the last couple of weeks — not only with scheme, doing a lot of tricky things with their scheme, but also just a tough, hard-nosed, well-coached, disciplined football team.”
In order to emerge in games which seem relatively evenly-matched, Houston must focus on this discipline aspect and cut its own penalty output. The Cougars have been flagged an FBS-most 43 times for an FBS-most 384 yards, and those egregious mistakes have been costly. Had they not accrued double-digit penalties in each contest, their record could be different from 2-2, so eliminating the constant holding penalties and personal fouls is a key emphasis as AAC play commences.
“Aside from hiring full-time referees to come (to practice) — I don’t know, maybe that’s my next step,” Holgorsen said. “There’s some things happening right now that I’ve just never seen in my 12-year head coaching career. We’re not doing anything different. I’ve got to rely on assistant coaches and how they teach technique. I take full responsibility of just the stupid stuff which is personal fouls, late hits, unnecessary roughness.”
Last time when facing Tulane, the story of the night was Houston’s defensive line. That was the night the unit’s nickname of “Sack Ave.” started to garner national attention, as the team registered eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss — with seven sacks stemming from defensive linemen. Unfortunately for the Cougars, they’ll be without Derek Parish for the rest of the season, who was off to an All-American-esque start with 5.0 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble to his name in a spectacular 2022.
“When they said what happened, I immediately started crying. That’s my brother from another mother. I love him to death. Derek Parish has helped me grow tremendously as a player and as a person since I’ve got here,” defensive end D’Anthony Jones said. “It really hurts the team. I think Derek is the most dominant player I’ve seen in a while and that’s playing with Logan Hall, Payton Turner, and Marcus Jones — to see what he was doing and doing with one hand, it was unbelievable.”
Still, “Sack Ave.” runs deep. Even after Parish exited the Rice game with his season-ending bicep injury, the Cougars’ defensive line made crunch-time plays which proved to be the difference between winning and losing. In the final five minutes of a tie ballgame, Jones recorded back-to-back strip sacks, and on the second one, defensive end Nelson Ceaser scooped up the losses ball for the game-winning touchdown.
“I’ve been a guy that’s been on a dry spell the first couple games,” Jones said. “To get my first couple sacks in that type of fashion was just a great feeling, and I feel like it’s great momentum going into league play.”
Last Saturday wasn’t the first time Jones altered the trajectory of a game. His third quarter strip sack against Tulane in the prior meeting, while trailing 22-17, sparked a 23-0 game-ending run for the Cougars.
“We’ve seen him change the game,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve talked to D’Anthony a lot about consistency, playing and practicing with more consistency. Derek Parish’s middle name is consistency. Ceaser’s becoming more consistent. We need (D’Anthony) to be a little bit more consistent. He can change the game, man, and he clearly changed this (Rice) game with two strip sacks in a row.”
Parish’s absence isn’t the only injury concern on defense. Starting outside linebacker Malik Robinson is out for the year and inside linebacker Donavan Mutin is day-to-day after missing Week 4. Replicating those veteran linebackers’ production with newer faces such as Trimarcus Cheeks, Jamal Morris, and Mannie Nunnery is one obstacle Houston’s defense encounters. Another obstacle not only involves improving downfield coverage, as the secondary allows the 11th most passing yards per game in the country, but fielding a healthy unit for Friday as starting free safety Gervarrius Owens and cornerback Art Green are game-time decisions per defensive coordinator Doug Belk.
“It’s been a lot of guys that have been stepping up including myself,” Morris said. “I want to give a shoutout to Trimarcus Cheeks. He’s come a long way. A lot of people had doubts about him playing at this level coming from what he came from. He’s been playing fast and he’s been working harder.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Houston looks to open its passing game to the level where it was a year ago. Last October at Tulane, quarterback Clayton Tune fired 288 yards and three touchdowns in a decisive victory. Tune has yet to surpass 272 yards this year, but the senior displayed efficiency last week by completing 73 percent of attempts and delivered his most stellar throw of the season on a 40-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Tank Dell.
“Our quarterback’s got to play good but everything starts up front with the offensive line,” Holgorsen said, referencing his injury-riddled unit which operated without its starting right guard and right tackle last week.
While pass protection is required to jump-start the passing game, Dell is the key to opening up the verticality of this aerial attack. The electrifying slot receiver posted a season-high 134 yards in Week 4 on seven receptions and typically carries the load in the receiving game for Houston. In the shorter throw game, the Cougars will rely on USC transfer Joseph Manjack IV and true freshman Matthew Golden, who scored a first quarter touchdown on a tunnel screen catch-and-run last Saturday.
By racking up 178 rushing yards against Rice, Houston is fresh off its most productive rushing performance of the season and that was accomplished despite the absence of running back Brandon Campbell, who led the Cougars in rushing Weeks 1 through 3. The status of Campbell’s ankle injury for Friday night is yet to be confirmed, but Ta’Zhawn Henry has performed well in his reps this season. Henry demonstrated his versatility by posting 105 receiving yards against Kansas and following it up with 112 rushing yards versus Rice — his second highest rushing output as a Cougar.
Based on the four sample data points we have on the teams thus far, Friday night’s game seems like it should be closely contested, and thus, difficult to predict. Houston has essentially witnessed three of its four games come down to the final play, so the Cougars are well-acquainted with competitive atmospheres in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Tulane knows the feeling of nail-biting finishes having participated in back-to-back one-score games.
The determinant of this matchup’s outcome comes down to what unit is better — Houston’s passing defense or Tulane’s passing defense. The Cougars feature the more dynamic, explosive passing game of the two AAC rivals with the established duo of Clayton Tune and Tank Dell leading the charge. But if that tandem is unable to generate enough home run plays, Tulane’s run defense should be potent enough to limit the Cougars’ offense from inflicting major damage.
On the flip-side, Tulane’s offense isn’t as explosive as Houston’s, but the Green Wave can establish a rhythm if they expose Houston’s 121st ranked passing defense in a similar manner to how Rice did. By connecting on a series of short throws and then utilizing Pratt’s mobility to its advantage, Tulane can pick apart Houston’s defense in a ‘death-by-papercuts’ manner to eke out a close win on the road.
Prediction: Tulane 27, Houston 24