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Houston hits the road to take on AAC powerhouse

Junior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson caught five passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns against No. 16 SMU, and his services will likely be needed against Saturday night against UCF. | Katrina Martinez/The Cougar

Junior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson caught five passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in Houston’s loss to No. 16 SMU. His services will likely be needed Saturday night against UCF. | Katrina Martinez/The Cougar

Houston and UCF are much different than the last time the two programs faced each other on the gridiron.

The Cougars won the 2016 matchup on a 31-24 decision a season after besting the Knights 59-10, the same year Houston was named American Athletic Conference Champion.

Between then and now, the Knights, now a perennial conference powerhouse, won consecutive AAC titles from 2017-18, had a 27-game regular-season winning streak and even became self-proclaimed national champions.

UH, meanwhile, is in the midst of a rebuild in head coach Dana Holgorsen’s first year at the reigns that has seen the team go 3-5 overall, including 1-3 in the AAC.

Two-loss UCF, also having an off-year after suffering defeats to Pitt and Cincinnati, is a favorite after a 63-21 win over Temple, but it is beatable.

With the two teams setting up to face off Saturday night in Orlando, Florida in one of Houston’s last chances to stave off bowl ineligibility, the Cougars must play their cards right to take down the Knights.

Match the rush

Holgorsen has historically been an Air Raid head coach, but Houston has made good use of the ground game in 2019.

Junior running back Kyle Porter, the Cougars’ leading rusher, has carried the ball for 479 yards this season, close to his Knights counterpart junior Otis Anderson’s 513 yards.

Both teams average over 200 yards rushing a game. UCF (233.9) holds the slight edge over Houston (206.8).

If the Cougars can keep up with the Knights on the ground, Houston will have an easier time in the air.

Repeat success

Sophomore quarterback Clayton Tune played the best game of his career in Houston’s 34-31 loss to No. 16 SMU last Thursday.

Tune, in his first game back from a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of UH’s Oct. 19 win over UConn, threw for 407 yards, a career-high, and two touchdowns.

His favorite target, junior wide receiver Marquez Stevenson, recorded five receptions for a career-high 211 yards.

Stevenson’s best play of the night came late in the fourth quarter: a catch off a slant route he took 96 yards to the house to put the Cougars within a field goal of the undefeated Mustangs.

While it is unlikely Tune and Stevenson will put up such numbers for the second week in a row, the two getting more comfortable with each other can mean good things going forward for Houston.

As for UCF’s passing game, the Knights have one of the best freshmen in the country leading the way.

Disrupt the pass

Orlando, the home of the Knights, has recently been a haven for quarterbacks.

Senior McKenzie Milton, out since suffering a severe knee injury in UCF’s 2018 regular-season finale against South Florida, led the team to much of the success it has seen.

Now, freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel leads the Knights, and he’s rolling.

The Hawaiian, No. 13 nationally in total passing yards, has tossed for 2,218 yards and 20 touchdowns through Week 9, leading UCF to six wins.

He has one weakness, however, and the Cougars must exploit it if they want to get to him.

Since UCF’s Sept. 21 loss at Pitt, Gabriel has been sacked 14 times, including six times against the Nittany Lions.

His 14 total sacks ranks third-highest among the 15 best passers in the country.

With the likes of defensive lineman David Anenih and safety Deontay Anderson, both juniors, Houston has the tools to mess with Gabriel’s rhythm.

Anenih has five sacks on the season, tied for fifth in the AAC, while Anderson’s seven passes defended so far in 2019 tie for third in the conference.

As a whole, UH has sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times.

Although the Cougars must find a way to be disruptive against Gabriel, they must keep their own quarterback on his feet.

Keep Tune safe

Against SMU, Tune — despite his career game — went down seven times, including the game-ending sack that sealed the Mustangs’ victory.

When it comes to protecting its quarterback, Houston ranks near the bottom of the AAC with 25 sacks given up.

Quarterback D’Eriq King took the brunt of the damage with 12 sacks in the four games he played before deciding to redshirt his senior season, but Tune has still gone down 10 times.

If the Cougars cannot keep Tune safe in the backfield, they’ll find themselves defeated again.

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