For Houston, this is Homecoming weekend and the second leg of a three-game homestand, which the team opened with a 56-3 rout over East Carolina on October 8. The Cougars were idle last Saturday, giving them some time to heal up and enter this contest with two weeks of preparation. Despite not playing over the weekend, UH moved from No. 25 to No. 21 in the latest AP Poll, and the team debuted at No. 19 in the initial BCS standings, released on Sunday evening.
"It's a good thing when you see your program represented in the BCS standings and it certainly helps with visibility for our university, but as a football team, it doesn't change our approach," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It just means we have played well to be one of ten remaining unbeaten programs, and it means we have a lot of opportunity ahead if we continue to prepare and play at a top level."
This game pits the C-USA West Division-leading Cougars against a Marshall squad that currently sits atop the conference's East Division. The Thundering Herd rebounded from a rain-soaked loss at UCF two weeks ago by knocking off Rice last Saturday, 24-20. The Herd are off to a 2-1 start in league play, while their non-conference losses have come at the hands of West Virginia, Ohio University and Virginia Tech. They notched a 17-13 win at Louisville on October 1 and earlier in the year handed Southern Miss its lone loss of the season in both teams' Conference USA opener.
The all-time series between these two teams is tied 1-1, with each school posting a win on its campus.
Marshall's victory over Rice last weekend marked only the second time this season that the Herd eclipsed the 20-point mark. The team ranks 115th out of 120 FBS schools with a scoring average of 14.7 ppg, and the Herd sit 114th in total offense with an average of only 279.7 yards per tilt. The offense has converted only 30 percent of its third downs on the year, which often leaves the defense on the field for long stretches. However, the offense simply does not boast many playmakers. Running back Tron Martinez is averaging only 52.4 rushing yards per contest and has found the end zone just once. Aaron Dobson paces the receiving corps with 25 catches for 309 yards and four scores, although he averages only 44.1 yards. Rakeem Cato has struggled under center, completing 55.2 percent of his attempts with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against Rice, sophomore A.J. Graham made his first career start at quarterback and led the team to victory. However, he did so primarily with his legs, rushing for 129 yards and a pair of scores. While he likely earned himself another start, Graham will need to make some plays in the passing game if the Herd are to pull off the upset on the road this week.
Whereas the Herd are searching for some playmakers on offense, they have no such problems on the defensive side of the ball. Senior safety Omar Brown is the nation's 10th-leading tackler with 78 tackles, in addition to two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He notched 12 stops in last week's victory, while Devin Arrington and Kellen Harris produced eight each. But the biggest impact player has been senior defensive lineman Vinny Curry, who became the third Marshall player to be named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week, joining linebackers George Carpenter (Sept. 12) and Tyson Gale (Oct. 3). Curry was all over the field against Rice, racking up nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Each of those sacks came on third down, while another one of his QB pressures resulted in a fumble that Curry himself recovered at the Owls' 25-yard line. His strip of Owls' running back Sam McGuffie set the Herd offense up with the ball at the Rice 23 with three and a half minutes remaining, eventually leading to the game-winning touchdown. Curry leads the nation with 17 tackles for loss on the season, and his 9.5 sacks rank second. He has been the main reason why Marshall leads the country with 67 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Curry, who was dealing with the recent passing of his mother, said of his forced fumble that it was simply time for someone to step up and make a play.
"Our backs were against the wall and we had to make a big play," he said. "Coach said someone has to make a play. I was just trying to make a play and set my teammates up."
Make no mistake, the Cougars will put plenty of double teams on Curry. They will likely have tight ends stay in and block more often than usual, and running backs will also be asked to help out with a chip here and there. Houston's offense is tailored around the strengths of prolific senior quarterback Case Keenum, who has 31 300-yard passing games under his belt at UH. Of course, the offensive line will need to keep him off his back against Marshall's pass rush. Barring injury, Keenum is on pace to break the FBS career records for passing yards (currently at 15,895) and touchdown passes (currently at 124) sometime before the end of the year. On the season, he is completing 71.4 percent of his passes while averaging nearly 400 passing yards per tilt (384.8). He has thrown an impressive 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions. In a recent interview on the team's website, Keenum expressed confidence that the Cougars can score on anyone in college football.
"Playing fast is one of the main goals of our offense. Playing with a good tempo," he said. "We're a fast team and we're going to play fast no matter who we're playing. Defenses, you can run it a million different ways against us but we're going to make our stuff work no matter what defense is out there. We concentrate not really being in a hurry, but playing fast and making good, quick decisions."
With the Cougars leading the nation in passing offense (435.5 ypg) and total offense (603.7 ypg) and ranking fourth in scoring (47 ppg), the defense merely has to keep games from turning into shootouts. They were able to accomplish that in a 56-3 win over ECU two weekends ago, and again two weeks before that in a 56-0 triumph over Georgia State. But in the Cougars' other four victories, they have given up an average of 33.3 points. While Keenum and the offense are certainly capable of overcoming that type of scoring on a given week, things could get interesting if the star gunslinger happens to have an off week. Still, the defense is coming off perhaps its best effort of the year so far, having limited ECU to three points and 284 yards of total offense, including just 21 on 30 rushing attempts. UH notched nine sacks in the victory, including three by George Bamfo and 2.5 by Sammy Brown. Kent Brooks paced the team with 10 tackles (seven solo). The Cougars also registered four interceptions.