UH set to face seasoned squad
The last time the No. 18 Cougars went on the road, they were out-muscled by Central Florida in a 37-32 loss.
In Saturday’s Conference USA championship game, they’ll face another team that prefers to play physical in East Carolina. But this time, UH (10-2, 6-2) plans to match its opponent’s aggression.
‘It doesn’t really matter how different their playing style is,’ linebacker Marcus McGraw said. ‘You just have to come in every week willing to learn and change things up. You have to be ready to adapt.’
After posting blowout victories in their last two games, the Cougars’ starters should be well-rested for their matchup with the Pirates (8-4, 7-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday. The lopsided margins also allowed backups to earn valuable playing time, which could come in handy this weekend at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
‘It’s nice when you don’t have to get hit as many times as normal. The next day you’re a lot less tired and you can recover quicker,’ quarterback Case Keenum said. ‘We were able to rest some guys and get some others some experience, which is very vital to being successful.’
Experience is a factor
However, head coach Kevin Sumlin’s primary concern doesn’t center on whether UH will be fresh and deep enough to match ECU’s physicality. Instead, the Pirates’ experience has captured his attention.
‘When you look at this game, people are trying to reduce it to different styles of play, but the biggest thing that I see in this game is we’re going to face a team that has 28 seniors,’ Sumlin said. ‘That’s more seniors than I have ever coached.’
Most members of the ECU squad that won last season’s C-USA championship are still with the team. Meanwhile, the Cougars returned only 12 starters from last year, and nine of this season’s starters are underclassmen.
‘This is uncharted waters,’ Sumlin said. ‘We’re in a situation right now where we have a younger team that’s going through some things for the first time.’
Although UH has an abundance of freshmen and sophomores on its roster, it has won important games in hostile environments such as Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. Sumlin believes those experiences will prevent his team from feeling intimidated by the magnitude of a conference title game.
‘We’ve had our share of experiences on the road, going into places that have been difficult when it comes to crowd noise and atmosphere,’ Sumlin said. ‘We’ve been in some big games, so we’ll see. These guys have found a way all year to accept those types of challenges.’
Pirates get defensive
Saturday’s game will feature the nation’s best scoring and total offense (UH) and C-USA’s No. 2 defense (ECU).
Like UCF, the Pirates sport an opportunistic defense that doesn’t shy away from playing rough. They utilize multiple defensive alignments in an attempt to prevent opposing offenses from finding a comfort zone.
ECU has forced 2.8 turnovers per game in its last five conference contests, and made Tulsa commit seven in last season’s C-USA championship game.
The Cougars, however, have failed to score 30 points only once this season, and put 55 and 73 on the board against Memphis and Rice, respectively. Although UH’s offense appears to be peaking at the best possible time, Sumlin knows ECU’s defense is talented and experienced enough to contain Keenum and his teammates.
‘(The Pirates) don’t make mistakes. (Their defenders) keep the ball in front of them,’ Sumlin said. ‘They create turnovers and score off of them. That’s where the game breaks down to me.’
The team that wins Saturday will not only earn a berth to the Liberty Bowl, but will also become the first school to win two C-USA championships. Considering these two programs have been among the best in C-USA during the last four seasons, it’s not surprising that McGraw is expecting a tough battle.
‘It’ll be interesting to go up there and fight for (a win),’ McGraw said. ‘The way I look at it, you have two great teams that are going to have to duke it out.’