Last season, No. 13 Houston traveled north to take on UConn, where the Huskies upset the Cougars 20-17 to secure their first bowl bid since the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. The loss was Houston’s first under head coach Tom Herman, and remains the only loss the Cougars have suffered in their last 18 games. This Thursday, the Huskies will head down to No. 6 Houston looking to play spoiler once again. Sports Editor Dan Madigan was able to ask Jonathan Valadez, assistant sports editor at Houston’s student newspaper, The Daily Cougar, a few questions in order to learn a little bit more about this talented Houston team and their matchup against UConn.
UConn was the only team to beat Houston last season, and so far this year, the Cougars haven’t lost since. What’s the biggest adjustment Houston has made since their loss to the Huskies, and would you say the Cougars are looking for revenge?
As far as winning out last season, I wouldn’t call it an adjustment, rather the fact that then-junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. stayed healthy for the remainder of the season. He accounted for the majority of the offense and replacing him with senior Kyle Postma did not yield the same results.
This season though, I think the big adjustment has come on defense. The Cougars had one of the best run defenses last year and continue that trend this year, but where they’ve really improved is in the secondary. They’ve gone from a traditional 3-4 defensive scheme to primarily playing in a nickel package. I think the added defensive back has allowed them to play more aggressively in coverage and up front.
I would definitely say the Cougars will be out for revenge this year. Earlier this week, head coach Tom Herman said he’d be foolish not to think there wasn’t any added motivation for this game, which is uncharacteristic for him.
Starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. only played a handful of snaps against the Huskies last season due to injury. What does a healthy Ward Jr. bring to the dynamic Houston offense?
Ward Jr. brings the ability to keep plays alive. When the pocket closes in on him, he just has a knack for getting away from the pressure and either finding an open receiver or making a play with his legs. I believe this is what makes him hard to game-plan for because it is hard to simulate what he is able to do. His vision and awareness on the field is unparalleled.
Other than Ward Jr., who are some other players UConn fans should watch out for on offense and defense?
On offense, I would say the player to watch out for is freshman quarterback D’Eriq King. He was supposed to redshirt this year but was asked to play after several injuries to the receiving corps.
He is a jack-of-all-traits player and had his coming out party last week, as he racked up 234 all-purpose yards on offense and special teams. He scored on a kick return and a passing and receiving touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, I would watch for sophomore cornerback Howard Wilson. Wilson had a solid freshman year before suffering a season-ending injury early last year. He received a medical hardship to restore his sophomore year and has shown no signs of rust this season.
He only has 14 tackles on the year but has three interceptions in the past two games, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Wilson has also recovered a fumble and is one of the best defenders in man coverage for the Cougars.
Houston has outscored its opponents 179-42 this season, including a 10-point win over Oklahoma in their season opener. While both are firing on all cylinders so far, which asset of the game will be most important against the Huskies, the offense or the defense?
I think it’ll come down to the offense and how well they can play in the red zone.
They’ve managed to reach the red zone 26 times already but have only scored a touchdown on 15 of those attempts. They were able to add five field goals as well, but I feel like Herman is going to rely on them less since senior kicker Ty Cummings has struggled as of late.
Overall, what is the Cougars’ biggest weakness, and how can UConn exploit it?
Going into the season, the talk was about how inexperienced the secondary was going to be. Through five games, they’ve actually allowed about 80 fewer yards this season and are ranked No. 33 in that area.
The offensive line is actually more of a weakness than the secondary. They are mostly all new this season and at times have had trouble protecting Ward Jr. Against the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, the line allowed three sacks and was outplayed at times.
Lastly, with Big 12 expansion rumors continuing to swirl, what is the vibe on campus about Houston’s chances of being selected as a member school?
Since the end of last season, there has definitely been a swagger on campus that wasn’t here before. With that being said, I feel like most students are ecstatic about UH’s chances at the Big 12 and many believe that Houston should be the top choice.