Excitement builds as opener draws near
If it looks like the UCLA players are towering over the Cougars on Saturday, your eyes will not be deceiving you.
What UH does not have in size, it will have to counter with effort and execution in the season opener.
“We’re going to go against the largest group of human beings that we’ll face all year,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “That’s about the easiest way to put it.”
The Cougars finished 2010 with a 5-7 record, and are anxious to step back onto John O’Quinn Field.
After accumulating 18 consecutive wins at Robertson Stadium, UH dropped its final three home games last season.
Saturday offers an opportunity to end the skid, and begin a new streak in a positive direction.
“I’ve thought about this game for a long time,” senior quarterback Case Keenum said. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it. It’s consumed my mind for the last year now. It’s going to mean a lot to me. I’m really excited about getting back out there.
“It’s going to be a dream come true honestly. To be back at Robertson Stadium in front of all the fans, it’s a feeling like no other.”
Cougar Nation vividly recalls the 31-13 loss that UH suffered against the Bruins last season at the Rose Bowl. While this year’s team hasn’t forgot the harsh memories, the flavor of this year’s matchup has changed drastically.
“The great thing about college football is every team is different,” Sumlin said. “There are a million different predictions every year, which by about Week 14 mean nothing. College football is about tradition, pageantry, but it’s also about kids. Every year you’re going to have a different team, a different set of dynamics and a different leader. Guys come and go.
“You’re challenged with winning. You look at our team on paper, and the first thing that jumps out is there’s a lot of juniors and seniors on our team. The second thing that a coach will tell you is that we’ve got about eight guys who will start their first Division I game on Saturday. Some of those juniors and seniors have been in the program for a while, and some of them just got here as junior college players. There are many challenges from the standpoint as a coach, that’s exciting.”
The Cougars chief concern is earning a Conference USA title, and winning or losing Saturday’s contest has no effect on that goal.
Nonetheless, Keenum and his teammates are treating their debut as if it were a do-or-die situation.
“We’re going to put as much stock into this week as we’re going to put into next week, and the week after that and all the way up to Tulsa at the end of the year,” he said.
“This is a non-conference game, and we obviously want to win the conference. But the way college football is set up, every week is a playoff week. We’re going to come out and play just as hard this week as we’re going to play hopefully in December.”
The Bruins come to town with something to prove as well. After a 4-8 mark last season, UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel and his team will be trying to get off on the right foot.
The Bruins will continue to run a pistol set on offense, where the quarterback receives the snap not directly under center, but not far enough to be considered a shotgun formation.
Mike Johnson is entering his first season as offensive coordinator for the Bruins.
Junior Kevin Prince is expected to start at quarterback for UCLA. However, Neuheisel indicated that junior quarterback Richard Brehaut will also receive playing time.
The Cougars will have to deal with junior running back Johnathan Franklin. In last year’s game, Franklin shredded the defense for 160 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 2010 with a total of 1,193 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Highly-touted junior defensive end Datone Jones also makes his return after suffering a preseason injury in 2010. The Bruins’ defensive unit also has a new coordinator in Joe Tressey.
“It’s tough to predict what’s going to happen with somebody new coming in,” Keenum said. “They’ve had a spring, an offseason and fall camp to install different things. At this point it’s hard to worry about what they’re doing, we concentrate on what we’re doing.
“It doesn’t matter what defense is out there, we just have to adjust and trust our offense to make it work. There’s nothing that they could throw at us that we haven’t seen before.”
Saturday’s game tips off at 2:30 p.m. at Robertson Stadium. It will be televised on Fox Sports Network and will be broadcast on 790 AM.