9:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Washington State -8.5, Over/Under:
Upstart programs meet tonight in Southern Texas as the No. 20 Washington State Cougars face the Houston Cougars, from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. Indeed, despite being separated by thousands of miles of land, these programs share much in common; both are named after the same breed of savage feline, sporting respective shades of red, while prescribing to a wide-open air-raid brand of Offense. One however, is much further along in their rebuilding process, and that’s unquestionably Washington State (2-0, 0-0 in Pac-12), whom now in their eighth season under the watchful eye of Mike Leach, have consistently positioned themselves within the Rankings, coming into tonight’s affair ranked Twentieth in the AP Poll. It took quite a bit, but the school’s patience with Leach has paid off handsomely, with the Cougars coming off an 11-2 campaign, their first 10-win term in sixteen years, and their highest win total in the history of the program. So where do they go from there, you ask? Well, given the current state of the Pac-12, there is plenty of reason to believe that they can in fact climb to the top of the league in 2019, which could even give them an outside chance of sneaking into the College Football Playoff. However, if it sounds like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, it’s because we are, and while they’ve outscored their first two opponents of the season 117-24, they’ve thumped the likes of New Mexico State and Northern Colorado, who with all due respect, are hardly worth a mention. Things should pick up considerably tonight, for Houston’s Offense can certainly put points on the board, which will put some serious pressure on Anthony Gordon & Co. to maintain their torrid pace. With former Quarterback, Gardner Minshew (70.7%, 4,779 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 38 TD, 9 INT in 2018), and his mustache now performing on Sundays, it was an open debate as to whether or not Washington State would suffer a setback under Center, but just as he managed the transition from Luke Falk to Minshew before him, ushering in Gordon has been a seamless transition thus far for Leach. A Senior who is well-versed in his Coach’s scheme, Gordon has put up some gaudy numbers already, completing an efficient 81.1% of his Passes for 884 Yards, Nine Touchdowns and One Interception, finding ten different Receivers throughout the first two games of the season. In Saturday’s 59-17 victory over North Colorado, Gordon went 31-of-39 for 464 Yards, Four Touchdowns and an Interception, with Senior Receivers, Brandon Arconado (14 REC, 193 YDS, 13.8 Y/R, 1 TD) and Easop Winston (11 REC, 164 YDS, 14.9 Y/R, 3 TD), combining to haul in Fourteen Receptions for 240 Yards and Three Touchdowns. Of course, we’ve come to expect this kind of production from Leach’s teams, with this incarnation of the Cougars proving no different, averaging a whopping 58.5 Points per Game (5th Overall) on 606.0 Total Yards. However, what will ultimately decide just how far this team can go in 2019 will be the play of their Defense, which will be doing everything in their power to get their hands on the football and give it back to their comrades on Offense. So far so good in that regard, for Washington State has logged a total of Seven Takeaways thus far, five of which have been Recovered Fumbles. It seems they’ve picked up where they left off in 2018, where they’ve allowed a respectable 23.3 Points per Game (42nd Overall) on 358.9 Total Yards, generating Twenty-Three Turnovers, leading to a healthy Plus-Nine Differential. Representing their lone significant opponent outside of the Pac-12, this matchup with Houston should give us a good idea as to what this team is really made of before they embark on a harrowing stretch in the middle of their schedule; after next weekend’s affair with struggling UCLA, the Cougars will hit the road for all but one of the following five contests, including away meetings with both Utah and Oregon, who are currently ranked Eleventh and Fifteenth respectively.
Meanwhile, there is another breed of Cougar down in Houston (1-1, 0-0 in AAC), where Dana Holgorsen has arrived with the mandate of taking the program to the next level. While the reside outside of the Power-5, the denizens of the American Athletic Conference clearly fancy themselves as something greater than their rank, with the school pouring resources into their football program in an attempt to put them on a more equal footing with their other schools in their region. While that may seem like an arduous task, improving a program that has gone 53-25 (.679) since joining the conference back in 2013 despite fielding four different Head Coaches in that span, speaks to it’s potential, if indeed the right individual was willing to plant his flag and mine the fertile recruiting grounds within the State of Texas. And this is where Holgorsen comes in, ladies and gentlemen. First and foremost, the 48-Year Old knows the area like the back of his hand, having served as one of Leach’s many Assistants at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2007, working as Co-Offensive Coordinator from 2005 to 2006 before taking soul possession of the position in 2007. Furthermore, he’s been here before, calling plays as Houston’s Offensive Coordinator from 2008 to 2009. Holgorsen continued to recruit heavily out of Texas as West Virginia’s Head Coach from 2011 to 2018, where he went 61-41 (.598), guiding the Mountaineers to seven Bowls and a pair of 10-Win Seasons. However, that marriage eventually grew stale, prompting him to leap at the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds, a program that had grown considerably since departed a decade ago. The proverbial cupboard was left far from bare to boot, particularly on Offense where Senior Quarterback, D’Eriq King (54.7%, 306 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 3 TD, 1 INT), is one of the most versatile in the country at his position. In 2018, King threw for 2,982 Yards and Thirty-Six Touchdowns, while rushing for another 674 Yards and Fourteen Touchdowns, ranking First Overall in the American Athletic Conference in Completion Percentage (63.5%), Passing Touchdowns (36), Passer Rating (167.0), Total Yards (3,656), Touchdowns Responsible For (50). Thus far, the Signal-Caller hasn’t been nearly as efficient, completing just 54.7% of his Attempts, but has nonetheless been productive, throwing for 306 Yards, Three Touchdowns and an Interception, while rushing for another 102 Yards and three more scores. However, there are clearly some wrinkles left to iron out, for it’s become clear that this kid is still very much learning the nuances of Holgorsen’s scheme, and has yet to get completely comfortable in it; King averaged a healthy 8.6 Yards per Pass Attempt in 2018, but has since seen that figure (along with his Completion Percentage) drop to a more pedestrian 5.8 Yards per Attempt. Granted, that could very well be a byproduct of their schedule, for Houston faced off against No. 5 Oklahoma in Norman on Opening Day, which is an extremely difficult task for even the most elite of programs. Needles to say, it went about as expected, with the Cougars falling 31-49 to the Sooners in an affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe; the hosts raced out to an early 21-0 lead before taking a 21-10 advantage into Halftime, and were up by as much as 42-17 heading into the Fourth Quarter, in which the visiting side got closer. King made his share of plays, rushing for 103 Yards and a Touchdown on Fifteen Carries, while also throwing for a pair of scores, but managed to complete just 14-of-27 Passes as he and his teammates looked overwhelmed at times as their opponent churned out a staggering 686 Yards of Total Offense despite committing Two Turnovers. Prairie View A&M was a considerable step down in competition, resulting in a 37-17 victory for Holgorsen’s charges, but they still didn’t perform up to his liking, turning the football over twice and amassing just 380 Yards of Total Offense, just sixty-two more than their FCS opponent.