The Opposition: Breaking down Temple, UH’s first AAC opponent

Cougar fans were fired up at Friday night's game. Emily S. Chambers/The Daily Cougar

Cougar fans were fired up at Friday night’s game. Emily S. Chambers/The Daily Cougar

The Cougars open conference play on Saturday against Temple. UH’s first game in the American Athletic Conference is a big moment for the players, coaches and the entire Athletics Department. We talked to Evan Cross, the assistant sports editor and football beat writer at The Temple News, the student newspaper at Temple. He gave insight into the challenge the Owls will bring.

The Daily Cougar: New coach Matt Rhule has instituted a new fast-paced style this offseason, something UH has been known for in recent history. How has the offense adjusted to the new system?

Evan Cross: Temple definitely doesn’t move as quickly as Houston on offense, but so far the offense has adjusted pretty well. Former coach Steve Addazio utilized a run-heavy offense anchored by players like Bernard Pierce and Montel Harris, but that style became too one-dimensional and the throwing game suffered as a result. Rhule has implemented a pro-spread offense that is more fast-paced and reliant on the passing attack. Connor Reilly threw the ball 46 times for 228 yards against Notre Dame — that’s 20 more attempts and 50 more yards than any Temple quarterback had in a single game last year. There were some issues with execution, but the strategy seemed to work fairly well.

TDC: Junior quarterback Connor Reilly has taken the reins of Rhule’s offense. What skills does he have that will challenge the UH defense?

EC: Reilly didn’t play when Addazio was at Temple because he is more of a pocket passer and Addazio favored more mobile quarterbacks. Reilly proved he was pretty mobile against Notre Dame — he’s not the speediest player, but he can scramble well enough to get out of trouble. His biggest strength is his football IQ. He did not turn the ball over on Saturday and never showed any signs of making a bad decision. He also showed his impressive arm strength on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half, throwing the ball 70 yards in the air.

He still needs to work on his long-ball accuracy — he missed a couple of players by overthrowing them on plays that might have been touchdowns. But given that it was his first collegiate start — against a good defense — he did extremely well.

TDC: One of the strengths of UH’s team is its receivers — and it sometimes puts four or five on the field at one time. Does Temple have the secondary depth to match up with UH’s spread sets?

EC: No, they don’t. Temple’s secondary is the weakest part of its team. They struggled against Notre Dame; even the best player in the defensive backfield, junior cornerback Anthony Robey, got burned on two touchdowns. Temple plays five different safeties, and only one — redshirt senior Abdul Smith — had experience before this season. Houston is not a good matchup for the Owls because of the Cougars’ passing attack.

TDC: One thing that slows the Cougars’ Air Raid offense is quick penetration. Pressure on the QB is one of the staples of what new defensive coordinator Phil Snow likes to do. Who are the players in the Temple front seven that could give UH’s offense fits?

EC: While Temple has a solid front seven, none of the players are standout pass rushers. The best defensive lineman is senior tackle Levi Brown, but he is more of a run stopper. The pass rusher to watch out for is senior end Sean Daniels — he had 3.0 sacks last year, and he was voted by the team as one of the nine toughest players on the team. These nine players all wear single digit numbers — Daniels wears No. 1 and Brown sports No. 9.

Another player to watch on the front seven is sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich, who wears No. 8, led the team in tackles last season and earned the 2012 Big East Conference Rookie of the Year Award. Despite only being in his second year, Matakevich is a team captain and is the best player on the team. He regularly records double digit tackles and will be a thorn in the side of the Houston offense.

TDC: The offense made some plays in the first half against a talented Notre Dame defense, but there were some problems in the kicking game. Is kicking a concern for the squad moving forward, especially in tight games?

EC: Freshman kicker Jim Cooper was a U.S. Army All-American in high school and won a three-way battle for the kicking job in training camp. He did not show his talent against the Irish, missing two field goals and having an extra point attempt blocked. Cooper said after the game that he didn’t square his hips properly, and Rhule said he is still confident that Cooper will pick up his game. While Cooper denied that nerves played a part in his performance, kicking at Notre Dame in your first college game isn’t the easiest thing. If Cooper struggles again against Houston, Rhule may turn to freshman Nick Visco, but for now, it appears Cooper has the job. One game certainly isn’t indicative of Cooper’s skills, especially given his success in high school.

TDC: Prediction?

EC: Both teams have fast-paced, effective offenses and iffy defenses, but Houston’s offense is more proven and has more talent at wide receiver. While I expect Reilly to have a good game, Temple’s secondary needs to be lights out to have a chance. While I expect them to improve, I don’t think they’ll be able to stop Houston’s passing attack.

>Houston 38, Temple 31.<

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