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November 10, 2012

Game Day: Tulsa @ Houston

Looking to bounce back from a tough road loss at Arkansas, Tulsa travels for a big road game at C-USA West foe Houston. The Cougars, also coming off a loss, will try to derail TU's path to the division title.

"We've got an awful lot to play for," said Tulsa Head Coach Bill Blankenship. "We're still in the driver's seat in our division, but, as has been the case for several years, Houston is always a big factor when it comes to winning the West. There's always been a little bit of extra rivalry because they're a good team and a good program.

"I was stunned to learn that they were down 28-0 last week at East Carolina. When I put it on film, (the Cougars) still look the same. We're up two games on them, but a win by Houston and a loss by Tulsa puts all that back in perspective. They still have a shot at winning the West. I don't think that's lost on them."

The Golden Hurricane is on a seven-game win streak in Conference USA road games, dating back to a 28-25 victory at Houston on November 13, 2010. TU hopes to continue that trend this weekend, as they play the Cougars for the final time before Houston moves to the Big East.

"The biggest challenge to winning on the road is mental toughness," said Blankenship. "Everybody tries hard. Everybody wants to win. But there is a mental and physical toughness that you have to have to win on the road. Our guys have demonstrated that over and over again."

Coach Blankenship on the Houston offense: "It's interesting. They're No. 6 in the country (in passing offense), and you have a tendency to feel like they've dropped off a little bit on offense. But yet you don't see that when you see the numbers they're putting up. I think if you look at Houston from start to finish, they're a much better offensive team in the last few weeks than they were early in the season. Their chemistry is better. I think (David) Piland continues to become a more complete quarterback. He's getting more accuracy with his throws and better chemistry with the receivers."

Coach Blankenship on the Houston defense: "Defensively, they are No. 10 in the nation in sacks and No. 5 in the country in tackles for loss. That should tell that they are a very aggressive, pressure-oriented defense. I like (linebacker) Phillip Stewart. He's a very active, very good football player."


With Houston (4-5 record, 3-2 in Conference USA's West Division) desperately in need of a home win versus division-leading Tulsa (7-2 overall record, 5-0 in Conference USA), it appears the Cougars will have to pull off that daunting feat without its best offensive weapon.

Star running back Charles Sims, who twisted his ankle on a second-quarter catch last week at East Carolina, is likely out. Backup Kenneth Farrow should get the majority of Sims' reps, but in reality, the burden of missing Sims' 827 rush yards along with 35 catches for 347 more -- as well as a combined 14 touchdowns -- will fall on starting quarterback David Piland. The sophomore second-year starter looked slightly more like his old self last week, two weeks removed from a concussion at Southern Methodist. He threw for 305 yards in a losing, come-from-behind effort at ECU.

Without Sims, Piland may need to look more like the quarterback who threw for nearly 600 yards at Louisiana Tech in week two rather than the one who couldn't break 200 two weeks ago versus UTEP. And he'll need to accomplish that feat with a receiving corps still struggling from the now three-game suspension of leading receiver DeWayne Peace, who hasn't dressed since getting into a sideline confrontation with head coach Tony Levine after two special-teams blunders against SMU and subsequently was reported to have violated team rules.

"We have guys that can play," Piland said Tuesday. "Prime example is (Kenneth) Farrow's (touchdown reception) at the end of the last game. It's a difference, but we can still run the ball and be efficient as an offense."


• Aided by a fast-break offense that serves as its base, all four of Houston's scoring drives Saturday took two minutes or fewer. Those four touchdowns raise the number of Cougars' sub-two-minute drives to 24 on the season, or 2.6 per contest.

• With OLB Phillip Steward's second interception of the season and MLB Everett Daniels' first-ever fumble recovery, the Cougar defense produced multiple turnovers for the sixth time this year after acquiring just one takeaway over the first two games.

• "When you look at the team coming here in a couple of days, they may be the most complete team in our league," Houston head coach Tony Levine said of Tulsa. "They're extremely well coached and extremely physical in all three phases of the game."

Series History: Houston holds a slim 20-17 all-time series lead, claiming a comfortable 48-16 win last season in Tulsa.

Scouting the Houston Offense: Even with a healthy Charles Sims, it's worth noting the Tulsa run defense is allowing a stingy 122.7 yards a game rushing, which means the air attack was always going to be the likely way to go. What the Cougars will miss is Sims' outstanding route running and receiver's hands. Especially with a youthful corps of wideouts that often shows flashes of explosiveness, but seldom sustains it. Blue-chip recruit Deontay Greenberry would have to qualify as the steadiest of that group. His 33 catches are good for fourth on the team. Sophomore Daniel Spencer (40 catches for 569 yards) is terrific in the open field, assuming he can first hang on to the football. Freshman Larry McDuffey (22-351, team-best four TDs) looks gloriously talented, but, like Spencer, has had trouble keeping his 5-11, 165-pound frame healthy.

Scouting the Houston Defense: The unit played its worst game since the week two score-a-thon with Louisiana Tech, surrendering three lengthy ECU first-half touchdown drives to let the game get out of hand early. The Cougars bounced back in the final 30 minutes, limiting the Pirates to just two field goals before a couple of late touchdowns -- one on a Ty Holmes interception -- in garbage time. The defensive playmakers, per usual, made plays. Steward and Matthews combined for 37 tackles, while Steward added an interception and a sack. CB D.J. Hayden, who looks to be showing an NFL pedigree, was targeted seldom, almost grabbing his fifth interception in one-on-one coverage on a deep route. But the overall numbers were still bad, as ECU outrushed Houston 250 to 28, and Hayden is out this week after tearing a vein in practice. Odds are Tulsa will look to that exact same blueprint for victory, loving to grind down opposing defenses to the tune of nearly 232 yards a game, scoring at a 36.8 points-per-game clip.

Quote to Note: "Defensively, we were on the field for 45 minutes (last week), three quarters of the game. We couldn't get off the field on third downs. It unfortunately worked hand in hand in a negative way. They were 12-of-20 on third-down conversions. We have to do a better job of getting off the field on third downs." -- Head coach Tony Levine

Keys to the Game: Tulsa, which had its seven-game win streak snapped in a 19-14 non-conference loss to Arkansas, should come into Robertson Stadium angry after seeing its seven-game win streak snapped at Fayetteville. Ja'Terian Douglas has rushed for 721 yards for an offense that ranks 15th nationally at 232.9 yards per game. Alex Singleton is a remarkably effective short-yardage back with 16 touchdowns. Houston, which allows nearly 189 rushing yards a game, is coming off a lackluster 250-yard allowance in their loss at ECU.

Players to Watch:

OLB Derrick Matthews -- The sophomore had his best game of the season to lead a defense that had one of its worst. Matthews finished behind just FS Trevon Stewart (six solo tackles, 15 assists) in team tackles at ECU with 16, also forcing his second fumble of the year.

WR Mark Roberts -- Roberts (five catches, 60 yards) made his first big play of 2012, looking to grab more playing time with Peace out. The sophomore hauled in a Piland jump ball for a 40-yard gain in the final seconds of Saturday's first half. Freshman Larry McDuffey grabbed a back-shoulder fade on the next play for a 10-yard score to get Houston off the goose egg headed to halftime.

FS Trevon Stewart -- Continuing to impress, the true freshman recorded 21 total tackles at ECU, this year's fifth-best game total nationally. By averaging just the six games Stewart has started and finished, the 5-9, 195-pounder would be averaging 15 tackles per game -- as opposed to his current 9.1 -- which would put him on top of the NCAA FBS list by two full tackles.

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