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Houston’s new defense will be tested often by Tulane’s rushing attack in season opener

UH football defenders surround a Prairie View A&M offensive player during a game in the 2019 season at TDECU Stadium. This contest was the Cougars' home opener a year ago. Houston's 2020 home opener will be against Tulane after the numerous cancellation to start the campaign. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

UH football defenders surround a Prairie View A&M offensive player during a game in the 2019 season at TDECU Stadium. This contest was the Cougars’ home opener a year ago. Houston’s 2020 home opener will be against Tulane after the numerous cancellations to start the campaign. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

When Thursday evening rolls around and the ball finally kicks off at TDECU Stadium, it will have been 313 days since the last time that UH played an official regular season game.

After reaching its bye week without playing a single second of football, 2020 has been an unprecedented journey for Houston.

While the team is excited that it will finally get a chance to compete, the Cougars face a tough American Athletic Conference matchup right out the gate against the Tulane Green Wave.

Tulane enters the contest as the third-best scoring offense in the AAC and the No. 1 rushing offense in the conference. The Green Wave are even ahead of No. 18 SMU, who has played one extra game than them, and the Cougars are aware of the challenge their ground game will possess.

“Their running attack is problematic,” head coach Dana Holgorsen told reporters on Monday morning via Zoom. “They do a lot of different offenses. They have a lot of really smart kids that can handle (it), and they have a lot of experience with their O-line (and) tight ends coming back.”

The Green Wave have four different running backs that have rushed for at least 100 yards this season, and while they lost their leading rusher in freshman Tyjae Spears in their last game against Southern Miss with a torn ACL, sophomore running back Cameron Carroll will more than be able to take over that lead back role.

His eight total touchdowns scored this season not only leads Tulane, but also the entire AAC, and he is preparing for a slugfest on Thursday.

“It’s not going to be an easy game,” Carroll told reporters on Monday. “It’s going to be fought for four quarters, 60 minutes, and this game is one of the most important ones.”

Back on the UH side of things, the Cougars’ defense, which was towards the bottom of The American in 2019 against the run, will quickly be thrown into the fire to start off 2020, but the unit is embracing the challenge.

“The mentality is to be aggressive,” senior defensive lineman Payton Turner said. “(However), they hide their tendencies really well … They got really good tail backs. Their offensive line is just run block, run block, run block. We got to stop the run, and we know that. It really starts up front, and I think as the d-line we put it on ourselves.”

As for UH’s linebackers, that unit will also play a key role in containing the Green Wave’s ground and pound bread and butter.

“Personally I try to think how this team is going to attack me,” senior linebacker Grant Stuard said. “In the past I’ve been hyper aggressive, almost out of control sometimes, so this week I gotta focus on being aggressive when I take my steps, but making sure all the steps I’m taking are the correct (ones).”

If Stuard and the rest of the linebackers are able to make the right reads on Thursday, they are confident that they will be able to plug the gaps and succeed in controlling Tulane’s run game.

UH’s goal on game day will be to make Tulane one dimensional, Turner said. The Green Wave will be starting freshman quarterback Michael Pratt, who came in during the first quarter after they fell in an early hole against the Golden Eagles, which could be an advantage for Houston.

One disadvantage for the Cougars, however, will be their lack of games under their belt.

Thursday will be the Green Wave’s fourth game this season while it will be UH’s first, and another big challenge for Houston will be how quickly they are able to adjust to regular season action.

“The big (key will be) if we’re going to be able to handle the speed of the game,” Holgorsen said, “(and) the physical nature with how they play.”

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