New Mexico Bowl: Getting to Know the Houston Cougars
The Hawaii Warriors will face the AAC’s Houston Cougars in the New Mexico Bowl. We talk with Underdog Dynasty’s Joe Broback to learn more.
What does Hawaii need to know about its AAC foe?
The Hawaii Warriors may not be bowling at home this Christmas Eve, but they’ll still have a holiday stage when they face the Houston Cougars in the New Mexico Bowl.
Hawaii and Houston have clashed in the past just once before, a triple-overtime shootout between Timmy Chang and Kevin Kolb back in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl, but it’s been some time since the Cougars had the national spotlight and the attention of most Mountain West football fans with their run to the Peach Bowl in 2015, so what will Warriors fans need to know before the showdown in Frisco?
Mountain West Wire: The last thing that most Mountain West fans might recall about Houston football is that head coach Dana Holgerson ended up treating 2019 like a “redshirt year”, most notably with former Cougars quarterback D’Eriq King. How did that affect the overall story of the 2020 season, especially with the unexpected COVID-19 factor?
Joe Broback: I didn’t mind what they did last year even if COVID-19 wasn’t around in 2020. Holgorsen needed to do what was best for his team, and he found a loophole in the rule. It turned out to be a good idea because the Coogs struggled with injuries and COVID-19 throughout the season. Guys like center/guard Braylon Jones wouldn’t have been around, to cover a few positions, and a new face would have been thrust into unfamiliar territory.
I think once the season started people forgot about the 2019 season, so it ended up being a non-factor. It helped that a pandemic was on the top of everyone’s mind, too. I think it was an innovative way to keep some guys around longer, and more schools should look into the benefits of it.
MWW: Quarterback Clayton Tune looks to have flown under the radar a little bit in a conference with so many high-flying offenses. How has he progressed over the last two seasons and what do you think the Hawaii defense will need to most prepare for?
JB: I think Tune has taken the step forward that everyone expected. Dana Holgorsen’s second year at his previous stops have seen tremendous improvement at the quarterback position. If it weren’t for COVID-19, Clayton Tune would be talked about more. The biggest strength he brings to the table is consistency. Tune’s not going to beat teams deep on a consistent basis (though he can sling it far if needed), but he knows that he can slice and dice a defense in the short to intermediate pass game.
When teams try to take away Houston’s speed at receiver, Tune’s running abilities take over. He doesn’t look like he’d be the best runner, similar to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but he can beat a team with his legs too.
MWW: One thing that surprised me is that despite playing only seven games, Houston did a lot to prove it could provide a strong pass rush with a 9.9% sack rate that ranked ninth in the FBS. Who are the one or two guys that Hawaii fans will want to get familiar with on that front?
JB: Defensive end Payton Turner is an absolute monster this year, though he’s not getting the recognition he deserves. He leads the AAC in tackles for loss by a defensive lineman, but was only picked as second team All-AAC. At 6’6″, 270 pounds, Turner took the biggest strides this year on the defensive side of the ball.
The other is defensive tackle Chidozie Nwaknwo. Only a freshman, Nwankwo took the number 10 (formerly worn by Houston great Ed Oliver) and accepted the expectations with it. He’s a run stuffer with tremendous strength to shed blocks quickly. He might not be a big factor in the pass rush, but Hawaii’s not going to have much fun blocking him. A bonus name would be D’Anthony Jones, a defensive end who’s primarily used in pass rush situations and is elite at timing snap counts.
MWW: Hawaii has done a good job of spreading the ball around through the air, though they haven’t been quite as explosive on that front as they were a year ago. With that in mind, who’s been the biggest standout in the Houston secondary and what could he do to keep a more balanced Warriors offense in check?
JB: Damarion Williams. He’s a guy that doesn’t get enough recognition in my opinion (was only All-Conference Honorable Mention). He’ll run with the fastest receiver on the other team, but can also play physical. He’s a big reason the Cougars secondary has improved as much as they did in 2020. Houston asks him to cover the toughest matchups week in and week out, and he doesn’t complain.
Williams faced a number of great receivers in his time at Houston, from UCF’s Marlon Williams to current Dallas Cowboy and former Oklahoma Sooner CeeDee Lamb. Hawaii will give him some new talent to face, but I don’t think it’s anything Williams hasn’t seen before.
MWW: By contrast, it looks like Marquez Stevenson is the man in Houston’s passing game, so what kind of skill set will Hawaii have to contend with to slow him down?
JB: A physical corner. If Hawaii has someone in the slot that can get hands on Stevenson early in the route, they have a chance. Most teams have just tried to keep him in front of them and rally to the football once he catches it, but that’s also playing with fire. One missed tackle usually means Stevenson’s finding the endzone. Being physical with him has proven to be the best way to contain his skillset.
MWW: Lastly, how do you see this unique New Mexico Bowl matchup unfolding between Hawaii and Houston?
JB: It’s tough because Houston’s played one game in the last month, and haven’t been full strength in a long time. If they’re fully healthy, I expect them to win, but that’s proven to be a big “if” this season. This is a team that just wants to play, and is trying to send a message for next year. So overall, I’m picking Houston to win, but by a one score margin.