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Cougars exit bye week with sights set on strong finish

Winners of back-to-back games thanks to a newly energized offense, head coach Major Applewhite and the Cougars turn their focus to Saturday’s game against the Tulane Green Wave following a well-deserved bye week. | File Photo/The Cougar

After earning bowl eligibility in a commanding performance against the Pirates last week, the rested Cougars return to action Saturday looking to ride the Tulane Green Wave to a win in New Orleans.

Sitting at 6-3, including 4-2 within the American Athletic Conference, the Cougars find themselves clinging to second place in the conference’s West Division. Although highly unlikely, a combination of the Cougars winning both of its remaining games and the Memphis Tigers losing its final pair would put Houston in the AAC Championship game Dec. 2.

Tulane enters competition with a 4-6 record that features four losses by two scores or less, including a one-point defeat to Cincinnati on Nov. 4 and a two-point loss against Navy on Sept. 9. Despite the team’s troubles this season, the Green Wave finds itself just two wins away from potentially being selected for a bowl game in December — the team’s first bowl since 2013 and second since 2002.

Thanks to the bye week, Houston is better prepared mentally and physically to face the task at hand and can avoid what would be a morale-crushing defeat in the latter stages of the season.

“(The bye week) came at a good time for health,” head coach Major Applewhite said at his weekly Monday news conference. “Just getting everybody back, getting the guys who were knocked up back to speed and (injured players) closer to playing.”

Rush of the Green Wave

Both Tulane and Navy, the Cougars’ next two opponents, utilize the triple option offense which uses an array of run plays that can be difficult to defend without adequate preparation.

Fortunately, the Cougars’ bye week provided extra time to prepare for the unorthodox schemes.

“You have two teams that present different issues; they aren’t (traditional) NCAA offenses, they’re teams that have a triple option element in what they do offensively,” Applewhite said Monday.

“They have great players and coaches. To steal a couple of days from each opponent during the off week to get ahead, get them out of the spread offensive world, get them more dialed-in to a dive-pitch quarterback and get them into those rules and responsibilities of what they have to do was helpful.”

Tulane places among the best offenses in the country by averaging 244 yards on the ground per game — good for No. 19 in the country leading up to Saturday’s contest.

For what it’s worth, the Green Wave surged to 488 yards of rush offense in its 62-28 beatdown of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane earlier this season, while the Cougars managed just 146 rush yards in their inexplicable 45-17 loss to the common opponent.

Tulane’s backfield features a four-headed monster of backs that have all garnered at least 300 yards on the ground in 2017, including seven different players with at least one rushing score. Although contributions come from all around, senior running back Dontrell Hilliard leads the team with 11 TDs and 997 yards on nearly 6 yards per carry.

Football royalty

The third option is the charm for the Cougars, whose previously stagnant offense has been reinvigorated by the play of former wide receiver sophomore D’Eriq King.

King, who began the season as the Cougars’ No. 3 QB, received a majority of the team’s snaps at the position after senior Kyle Postma was pulled early against South Florida. The sophomore stepped in and led the Cougars to victory against the nation’s No. 17-ranked school before earning his first start the following week and helping his team cruise to a 25-point win against East Carolina.

Overall, King is putting together one of the most dynamic seasons in Houston school history with 11 TDs — five passing, four rushing and two receiving — including 896 combined yards between the three facets.

Oliver the place

It’s sometimes hard to believe that sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who has talent that could dominate for any school in the country, plays college football in Houston.

But believe it and enjoy it because the nation’s best defensive tackle can be found in the heart of UH’s defense. Oliver continues to exert his dominance over opposing offensive lines en route to a 2017 campaign that has seen the sophomore record 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three passes swatted.

His numbers, although still impressive, have faltered slightly in his second season due to the cancellation of a game, causing him to see minimal action against Temple due to injury precautions.

Since tweaking his knee in the Temple game, Oliver has sported a bulky knee brace to provide support at the cost of hindering mobility. According to Applewhite, the sophomore has shed the brace since the team’s last game action – an unwelcome sight to opposing offenses.

“He told me they took the leash off, and I didn’t know what he was talking about at first,” Applewhite said. “I saw he didn’t have his knee brace on, so he feels great about it. All those things are for safety precautions, as long as he feels healthy and ready to go I’m feeling healthy and ready to go.”

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