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2016 University of Louisville college football preview: Houston Cougars

Cards will look for revenge against the Cougars.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports


2015 Record



Tennessee Tech, Louisville, Texas State, Tulsa, SMU, Tulane, UCF, Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy, Temple, Florida State



Series leader: Tied (8-8)

The current series between the Cards and Cougars is tied at an even 8-8. Last year’s game was a week two match-up in Cardinal Stadium where the Cougars were able to secure a 34-31 victory. Lamar Jackson threw for 168 yards and a touchdown, but did throw two interceptions. Kyle Bolin’s efforts weren’t much better as he had 157 yards passing and a touchdown. Louisville didn’t have much luck running the ball, either, as the team rushed for a total of 70 yards. Jackson and Jeremy Smith each had a rushing touchdown, though. Mickey Crum was the bright spot on the offense as he had 6 catches for 103 yards with a touchdown reception.

At the time, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. wasn’t as well-known as he is today. He started his 2015 breakout campaign against the Cards as he threw for 236 yards and 3 touchdowns. He added 98 yards rushing for an average of 4.7 yards per rush. Running back Kenneth Farrow helped lead the ground attack on 27 rushes for 109 yards. In total, Houston rushed 57 times with 226 yards, but the team did not have a rushing touchdown.

Season Recap

Houston was the surprise team in college football last year. They went 13-1 with the lone loss coming against Connecticut at Rentschler Field. While playing in the AAC, Houston was still able to have wins over Power Five teams in Louisville, Vanderbilt, and Florida State. Houston beat Temple 24-13 in the AAC Championship game and went on to beat Florida State 38-24 in the Peach Bowl down in Atlanta. On the year, Houston averaged 40.6 points per game, which was good for 10th nationally. They weren’t having to shoulder a bad defense, either, as Houston’s opponents only averaged 20.7 points per game.

Coach Resume

2015 was the first season that Tom Herman spent as a head coach, and he really exceeded expectations in his first year. Before that, he most recently spent time as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator/quarterback coach under Urban Meyer. He helped Ohio State win the national championship despite the Buckeyes being down to their 3rd string quarterback in Cardale Jones. The loss of Herman was evident for the Buckeyes. In 2014, Ohio State was 5th in the nation in scoring offense with 44.8 points per game. That stat dropped to 28th nationally at 35.7 points per game in 2015 after Herman left Columbus. If Herman and Houston keep having seasons like they did in 2015, expect his name to be at the top of the list for open coaching spots at some bigger programs in the next couple of years.

Returning Starters

Houston will return 12 starters (7 offense, 5 defense) from 2015’s 13-1 squad. The headliner among the returning starters is Greg Ward Jr., who has garnered some preseason Heisman watch list appearances. Other notable returning starters are receivers Steven Dunbar and Chance Allen, tight end Tyler McCloskey, and offensive linemen Mason Denley, Will Noble, and Colton Freeman. Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar last year combined for 1,134 yards and 9 touchdowns.

The defensive side of the ball takes a pretty substantial hit in losing talent. Cornerback William Jackson was a 1st round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. Linebacker Elandon Roberts was drafted in the 6th round by the Patriots while receiver DeMarcus Ayers went in the 7th to the Steelers. They do return their top leader in sacks; outside linebacker Steven Taylor, who had 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last year. The secondary probably takes the biggest hit as Brandon Wilson is the only returning starting defensive back.

Returning QB

There’s no doubt that Greg Ward Jr. is going to be the guy in Houston as he looks to build upon his stellar season in 2015. While his passing stats were fairly modest (2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns to 6 interceptions), the real threat of Ward is his ability to make plays with his feet. He rushed for 1,108 yards (leading his team) with an average of 5.6 yards per rush and 21 rushing touchdowns. While he does lose his top target in DeMarcus Ayers, who left early for the draft, there is still plenty of talent around him to help carry the load in the passing game. Even more exciting for Ward is that he will have a full offseason and years’ experience working with Tom Herman and learning his scheme.

Biggest problem

The secondary loses 3 of their top defensive backs from last year in William Jackson, Adrian McDonald, and Trevon Stewart. That is 13 interceptions, 27 broken up passes, 3 forced fumbles, and 15.5 tackles for loss that the Cougars lose from their secondary. Houston was 19th nationally in sacks with 36, but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough to cover an inexperienced secondary. If opposing quarterbacks have time in the pocket to survey everything, Houston is going to get gashed.

Biggest Strength

Despite losing Kenneth Farrow, who was one of the best running backs in school history, I think the Cougars ground game is going to be very strong again this year. Last year it was 13th in the nation with 235 yards per game. They were 42 yards away from having two 1,000 yard rushers with Greg Ward having 1,108 yards and Kenneth Farrow at 958 yards. Houston’s 46 rushing touchdowns were 3rd in the nation behind Georgia Southern and Navy. They do lose Kenneth Farrow, but transfer Duke Catalon comes in from Texas and he will be eligible to play this year after sitting out last year. Tom Herman calls Catalon the second best running back he’s ever coached behind only Ezekiel Elliott.

4 players to remember

Greg Ward Jr.: Broke out onto the scene in 2015 with 38 total touchdowns, it’ll be exciting (and scary) to watch what he can do in year 2 in Tom Herman’s offensive scheme and coaching.

Duke Catalon: Sat out in 2015 after transferring from Texas, Catalon will be the replacement to Kenneth Farrow. Catalon is generating a lot of excitement with his combination of speed and physicality.

Steven Taylor: The defense loses a lot and will be looking to the senior to help lead them. He’s the returning leader in sacks, tackles for loss, and tackles.

Ra’Shaad Samples: Another transfer into the program, Samples is a prime candidate to fill the spot at slot receiver after the unexpected early departure of DeMarcus Ayers.

Final Thoughts

On paper, this game is going to be the 3rd toughest on the Cards schedule behind Clemson and Florida State. While this will be a tough game for the Cards, I’m not as worried about it as I was earlier this summer. The big reason is that this team isn’t going to sneak up on Louisville as it did last year. Last year’s game came between two premiere programs in Auburn and Clemson, and I don’t think Louisville gave Houston the respect they (rightfully) deserved. It’d be hard for me to envision that same mindset for this year’s match-up; a Thursday night primetime game in the second to last week of the season. As far as X’s and O’s, the Cougars took a big hit in the secondary, and I can only imagine the schemes Petrino is going to draw up with Quick, Staples, Bonnafon, and Hikutini to expose this.