Tom Herman turned his national championship as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State into a head coaching job at Houston this past winter. With that head coaching job, Herman took over one of the most promising non-power five programs in the country. Houston has a new stadium and Herman has already landed a commitment from a five star prospect in his own backyard for next year. Unlike most schools with a new coach that is replacing a fired one, Herman was able to take over a team that only lost 5 games last year. He has to be hoping that a roster with some upperclassmen leadership can help him pull off the upset.
If fans were impressed by Lamar Jackson's open field running and improvisation last week they should prepare themselves to see similar things from Greg Ward. Ward is a former wide receiver that took over the starting quarterback spot halfway through last season. Ward has limitations as a quarterback as he is only 5-11 but he makes up for that by being a great open field runner as well as a very solid passer. It also helps that Houston's offense is built around short, quick passes that open up deep ball opportunities. Ward completed nearly 70% of his passes last year which shows that he is much more than an athlete that happens to play quarterback. Ward is a type of athlete that Louisville hasn't faced in a while. I would expect Todd Grantham to focus mostly on not letting Ward run. He might do that by having his ends and outside linebackers rush deeper upfield in hopes that it will keep Ward in the pocket or at least running into the middle of the field.
Houston's "traditional" running game really struggled against Tennessee Tech last week. Ward had some big runs on scrambles and Demarcus Ayers had a couple of nice runs on wide receiver speed sweeps. However, the running back duo of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson never got going and never really had much room to work with. Farrow is the starter and he is known as more of the power back of the two while Jackson is a former sprinter that has added bulk to help himself become more of a complete back. Farrow doesn't really do much to impress but he's been the "guy" for Houston for a few years now. He won't outrun anyone. He won't make many guys miss. And, to be honest, the "power back" label has more to do with Jackson being the "speed" guy than anything else. Louisville has given up 100 yards to an opposing running back 5 of the last 7 games but I don't think that will be the case this week.
Louisville lost a lot of talent at wide receiver this offseason but Houston could have an argument that they lost more. Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar are the only returners from last year and unlike Louisville, Herman was trying to replace their talent in a shorten recruiting period after starting in January. That did lead to one positive which is Chance Allen transferring back home to Texas from Oregon. Allen is 6-3 and 215 pounds and he can run very well. Allen was granted a waiver to play this year even though he played in 5 games for Oregon last year. The luxury of not having to take a year off might be helpful for him. Ayers is the focus of the offense as of now, though. He finished the game last week with 10 catches and 190 all purpose yards (Would've been 275 if a bad holding call didn't bring back an 85 yard punt return TD). Ayers lines up in the slot and he runs everything from crossing routes to bubble screens and speed sweeps. Houston is still looking for other guys to step up and one guy to look out for is Steven Dunbar who is also 6-3 and 210 pounds. The size and speed of the three starters is something that could help Houston's offense create some big plays as Auburn had some success getting the ball to some of their bigger receivers.
The question mark for Houston's offense is the play of their offensive line. Herman's offense moves the pocket and also asks the offensive linemen to cover a lot of ground when run blocking. The system needs linemen that fit it and based on their showing against Tennessee Tech, I would say that when it comes to run blocking they're not the perfect fits. When Ryan Jackson ran stretch plays he found himself with no lane to run through because the linemen were chasing the play instead of leading the way. Farrow repeatedly ran into a backside linebacker or had a defensive end free to make a tackle after a few yards because blockers didn't stay engaged. The pass blocking from the line was fine. Ward took a couple of sacks he shouldn't have but he wasn't rushed at all and he had huge windows to throw through. Louisville's run defense was run over at times by Auburn and they're offensive line. I think Houston has some issues to fix before they could do the same.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Greg Ward, WR Demarcus Ayers, WR Chance Allen, RB Ryan Jackson
Houston runs a 3-3-5 and they never leave that set. The defense of David Gibbs is gone to Texas Tech, but the base set is still the same and some of the things they do are similar. The line is led by three big bodies that do a great job of holding up blockers and forcing as much as possible outside. The group doesn't make a lot of tackles but they do a fairly good job of what they are truly assigned to do. Louisville's interior linemen had a very forgettable day against Auburn but this is a game where they might be able to gain some confidence.
Houston's linebackers can run extremely well. That doesn't mean they're just fast but they also know how to run with angles and purpose. It's what stands out about James Burgess and Keith Kelsey and Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor are no different. Taylor gets after the quarterback more as the Will linebacker in the defense while Robers is the middle linebacker who does a really good job of chasing down plays. The third linebacker is the Sam backer Tyus Bowser who lines up on the line of scrimmage like a "buck" or "leo" linebacker (Carl Lawson was at this spot for Auburn last week). Bowser is another guy that runs well for his size and looked really athletic on a nice sack he had last week.
The strength of Houston's defense is their veteran secondary. How veteran? Three of the five starters this weekend started in the game against Louisville in 2013. William Jackson, Trevon Stewart, and Adrian McDonald helped lead a defense in 2013 that forced an absolutely insane amount of turnovers. They now play more aggressive as opposed to being opportunistic like they were before. They play a little more press coverage and they bring pressure from different angles which puts more pressure on the secondary. That new philosophy didn't work out too well last week as the secondary blew three coverages and allowed an FCS receiver to get loose for 264 yards and two touchdowns. But outside of the blown plays the secondary looked like the true strength of the defense and I think that will allow Todd Orlando to be a little risky and try to confuse Lamar Jackson.
KEY PLAYERS: OLB Steven Taylor, ILB Elandon Roberts, FS Trevon Stewart, SS Adrian McDonald, CB William Jackosn