PISCATAWAY, N.J. – When Houston and Rutgers meet for the first time, there should be no surprises in store for either team.
They are mirror images, featuring exciting special teams play, opportunistic defenses and high-powered offenses.
Houston (5-1, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) will look to rebound from its first loss when it takes on a well-rested Rutgers (4-2, 1-1) at High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday.
The Cougars dropped a 47-46 decision to BYU last week. The Scarlet Knights have not played since dropping a 24-10 decision to Louisville on Oct. 10.
"They have two and a half weeks to prepare for us because they had a bye-week and our kids, this afternoon, are going to know that," Houston coach Tony Levine said. "That's going to be the message. 'This is what is going to happen this week.' I feel like I know how we're going to respond, but the proof will be when the ball is kicked off."
The comparison of the teams is startling. Houston is averaging 40.8 points, almost six points more than Rutgers. The Cougars are giving up 23.7 points, just over three less than the Scarlet Knights. They both feature dynamic kickoff returners and are good at blocking kicks, although Rutgers has led all schools nationally since 2009 with 33 blocked kicks/punts. During that time span, RU has scored 14 touchdowns via special teams.
"There's not that much difference between the teams week to week," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "It's the little things that win the football game. We run the ball, stop the run. Secure the ball, take it away. We're playing the No. 1 team in turnovers this week. Special teams can win the game for us, it has won games for us under the past. And we're playing one of the premier special teams team in the country. We've got tremendous challenges. That game did not surprise me. I knew Louisville and I know central Florida has an excellent team. You saw it in a number of games over the weekend there's not that much of a difference in college football. You had better be ready to play and you had better play for 60 minutes every week in you want to be 1-0.
Here are five things to watch when Rutgers faces Houston:
FABULOUS FRESHMAN: Since replacing David Piland (concussion), Houston quarterback John O'Korn leads all true freshmen nationally with 14 touchdown passes, which is 19th nationally and second in the conference. He has completed 115 of 190 for 1,494 yards and four interceptions. His passing efficiency is 146.7, fourth in the league. He has thrown for at least three touchdowns in four games and for more than 300 yards in two. Rutgers junior quarterback Gary Nova ranks sixth in school history with 5,621 yards passing and 439 completions and third with 47 touchdowns.
RUTGERS RUNNING: With leading rusher Paul James still sidelined with a leg injury, expect true freshman Justin Goodwin to carry the load for the Scarlet Knights again. He was limited to 16 yards on 11 carries the loss to Louisville. In the previous game against SMU, he ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner on a 17-yard scamper in overtime. Savon Huggins, who started the opener and then was replaced by James, is the backup.
TURNOVERS GALORE: Through six games, Houston leads the nation with a plus-14 turnover margin. The defense also leads with 21 takeaways, 10 fumbles and 11 interceptions. Houston is third nationally with the 10 fumble recoveries and ninth nationally with the 11 interceptions. The 21 turnovers have resulted in 65 points, including 18 scored directly by defenders.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Houston true freshman Demarcus Ayers scored on a 95-yard kickoff return against BYU last week. He has had 17 returns on the season and leads The AAC with a 28.8 yards average, which is fourth nationally. Rutgers has done some damage on kickoff returns, too. It is only one of five teams with two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year. True freshman wide receiver Janarion Grant, who was recruited by Houston, ran back a 100-yard kickoff return to score the first points of the season for Rutgers at Fresno State. Quron Pratt scored on a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the victory over Eastern Michigan. Both Pratt and Grant scored a touchdown on the first kickoff return of their careers.
HOMECOMING: This will be Homecoming for Rutgers and its first game at High Point Solutions Stadium in 34 days. It is the longest stretch of days between home games in a season since a 35-day streak in 2006. The forecast is for game-time temperatures in the mid-50s with winds ranging to 14 mph.