Hawaii Bowl: Get To Know The Houston Cougars
What can the Fresno State Bulldogs learn about their Hawaii Bowl opponent, the Houston Cougars?
The Cougars remain dangerous in the AAC despite the win-loss column this fall.
2017 HAWAII BOWL: Houston Cougars (7-4, 5-3 American) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (9-4, 7-1 Mountain West)
WHEN: Sunday, December 24 — 5:30 PM PT
WHERE: Aloha Stadium; Honolulu, Hawaii (50,000)
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be heard on 940 AM (KFIG) and 1600 AM (KGST), the latter of which is the Spanish-language broadcast. The Houston broadcast can be heard on 950 AM (KPRC).
SERIES HISTORY: This meeting will be the first between Houston and Fresno State.
Perhaps they won’t fire head coaches in Houston at 8-4, after all.
Major Applewhite’s first season as head coach of the Houston Cougars has certainly had its share of trials. After having a game with Texas-San Antonio canceled by Hurricane Harvey back in September, the latest iteration of the #HTownTakeover has struggled to find consistency: They’ve neither won nor lost more than two games in a row, and they’re 3-3 in games decided by seven points or less.
However, on the strength of a defense that finished third in the American Athletic Conference by yards allowed per play, the Cougars rounded into form and ended the regular season on a couple of high notes: They rallied late to defeat South Florida, which was ranked 17th at the time, and they put the clamps on Zach Abey and the rest of Navy’s dangerous running game.
A win in the Hawaii Bowl would give Applewhite the aforementioned eighth win of 2017 and, in all seriousness, probably would not cost him his job, but chances are he’ll line up against a team that’s very similar to his own. It won’t be a paradise for Jeff Tedford and the rest of the Fresno State Bulldogs once both sides take the field so, before we dive into the particulars of the Hawaii Bowl matchup in the next two weeks, here are a few broad takeaways that the Red Wave should know about their postseason opponent.
1. The Cougars have dealt with QB issues, but they may have resolved them, too.
If you’ve paid attention to Fresno State football the last few years, you’re all too familiar with how a quarterback carousel can ruin a season. Houston had a shaky September despite going 2-1, and much of this was owed to Kyle Allen, who started the first three games but turned the ball over six times before getting benched in a close loss to Texas Tech.
Kyle Postma, who succeeded Allen, completed 66% of his passes but created just 12 passing plays of over 20 yards on 167 attempts. After making five starts, during which Houston suffered a blowout loss to Tulsa and a close loss to Memphis, Applewhite finally handed the reins to sophomore D’Eriq King, who led a comeback win against the then-ranked Bulls and hasn’t looked back.
In his time under center, the big plays have returned: He’s completed nearly one of every five passes for 20 or more yards (19-of-96), and though he’s taken sacks at a higher rate than either Allen or Postma, he’s responsible for just two turnovers and brought a Greg Ward-esque running game back into the Cougars offense. He averages, after adjusting for sacks, 6.6 yards per carry.
2. Ed Oliver: Still pretty good.
Fresno State has tangled with its fair share of very good defensive tackles in 2017 — David Moa, Youhanna Ghaifan, Viti Vea — but it still seems reasonable to suggest that the Bulldogs haven’t had to deal with anyone of Oliver’s caliber.
The follow-up to his 2016 freshman All-American campaign got off to a slow start, as he didn’t collect a sack until Houston’s sixth game while also contending with a knee injury. Don’t mistake the lesser numbers with a diminished ability to terrorize quarterbacks and running backs, though: He still collected 5.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles en route to AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and he’ll be a nightmare for the improved Fresno State offensive line to scheme against.
3. Houston’s receivers are quietly dangerous.
The Cougars don’t have a true star at receiver like Michael Gallup, nor do they have a rising talent like Memphis’s Anthony Miller, but what they do have is a deep unit that simply knows how to make plays.
Start with senior Linell Bonner, who has produced at almost the exact same clip he did in 2016. He has at least five catches in every game he’s played this fall (and in 20 of the last 23 games, as well, stretching back to the start of last season) and sports an absurd 79.8% catch rate.
Steven Dunbar saw more work than any receiver in the country on third downs, leading the FBS with 30 such catches finishing the regular season tied for sixth with 16 first-down conversions, and has a 68.8% catch rate. By comparison, Fresno State’s Keesean Johnson, the team’s leading receiver, currently boasts a catch rate of just 59% and has just six first downs on thirteen 3rd-down receptions.
If that weren’t enough, sophomore Courtney Lark has been targeted only 14 times in six games, but he’s averaged 22.8 yards per catch and 14.6 yards per target, both of which are the best figures among all receivers we’re likely to see in the Hawaii Bowl.