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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Football

Houston ready to ‘bring back a victory’ against Oklahoma


Houston's 2016's matchup between the Cougars and the Sooners saw Houston sack then-quarterback Baker Mayfield five times en route to a 33-23 win. | File photo

The 2016 matchup between the Cougars and the Sooners saw Houston sack then-Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield five times en route to a 33-23 win. | File photo/The Cougar

When Houston marches into Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in front of a crowd of over 80,000 to take on No. 4 Oklahoma on Sunday, the Cougars will face their biggest and baddest opponent of the year — and it’s only the season opener.

The Sooners, who in 2018 won the Big 12, had a second-consecutive Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and with a No. 4 seed qualified for the College Football Playoff, look to trounce the Cougars as revenge for their 2016 33-23 loss to UH.

Head coach Dana Holgorsen, having gone seven straight seasons without beating Oklahoma during his time as head of the Big 12’s West Virginia, has confidence that UH will return from Norman with a win under its belt.

“We embrace these expectations,” Holgorsen told fans last Friday at Cage Rage, a preseason pep rally. “Our job is to bring championships.”

For the Cougars, the path toward Holgorsen’s goal runs through a sea of crimson 20 miles south of downtown Oklahoma City.

How will Houston get there? Using the same tactics Holgorsen used 10 years ago when his offense led quarterback Case Keenum and the Cougars to one of the most prolific offenses in the country: take to the air.

King of the skies

With the injury of defensive tackle Ed Oliver in 2018, senior quarterback D’Eriq King became Houston’s No. 1 weapon.

One problem remains, however. King, who missed the final two games of last season with a knee injury, has had to change his style of play under Holgorsen to avoid another potentially season-ending injury.

“He’s the most valuable guy we have on this practice field right now,” Holgorsen said during the first days of training camp. “If he’s on the sideline with an injury, then he’s not going to do us any good.”

The native of Manvel has made improvements, Holgorsen said. The Earl Campbell Award finalist has practiced sliding and other means of keeping himself safe while not sacrificing the broken plays and quarterback scrambles that give King’s style of play its distinction.

“I’m still coaching him to manage the game and run the offense and let all the players around him make all the plays they are capable of making,” Holgorsen said.

Last season, King set an American Athletic Conference record in touchdowns responsible for with 50. Given Holgorsen’s air raid offense and the fact that the 2018 Cougars averaged almost 44 points per game to the Sooners’ 33-point opposition average, the team can find success in its opener.

Handling the trenches

The Sooners’ senior quarterback Jalen Hurts is the Cougars’ biggest threat heading into the matchup.

After all, he is a national champion.

But the native of Channelview and transfer from Alabama, just like any quarterback, has a weakness — he’s sack-prone.

In 2017, a year before then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa took his spot as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, Hurts was sacked 24 times, five more than in 2016 and with almost 130 fewer pass attempts than the previous season.

When Holgorsen arrived in Houston, he installed a new four-man defensive front, a change from former head coach Major Applewhite’s three-man defense that misused Oliver before the injury in his final season with the Cougars.

Exploiting any mistake in an Oklahoma offensive line that let up 19 sacks in 2018 would be best to get Holgorsen’s new defensive line settled into the trenches.

Duel of the QBs

Oklahoma can build quarterbacks like no other school can, and Hurts is no exception.

Head coach Lincoln Riley alone has had two consecutive Heisman winners under his belt, and both are now thriving in the NFL.

Fortunately for the Cougars, Holgorsen is just as offensive-minded as Riley, and a quarterback duel between King and Hurts will likely ensue.

The two quarterbacks played against each other while in high school, with King’s Manvel beating Hurts’s Channelview 71-21.

With the stakes much higher now than at the 2015 matchup, Holgorsen remains excited and confident in Houston’s trip to Oklahoma.

“We can’t wait to go up there and play those guys and bring back a victory,” Holgorsen said. “There’s no question about that.”

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