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UH football: Previewing the 44th Bayou Bucket

UH football is 32-11 all-time against Rice, including riding a six-game win streak in the Bayou Bucket. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

UH football is 32-11 all-time against Rice, including riding a six-game win streak in the Bayou Bucket. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

The 44th Bayou Bucket is here.

Similar to 2021, UH football enters the contest against cross-town rival Rice hoping to use the game as a springboard after a tough start to the season:

A look at Rice:

Rice enters the Bayou Bucket coming off arguably its biggest win under head coach Mike Bloomgren as the Owls snapped Louisiana’s 15-game win streak, the longest in the nation, with a 33-21 victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns.

At 2-1, UH head coach Dana Holgorsen knows that this Rice team is different from the team that the Cougars’ crushed a year ago.

“They’re better than they were when we played them a year ago,” Holgorsen said.

After a rough start to the season coming off the bench against USC, junior TJ McMahon has settled in at quarterback for the Owls, becoming more comfortable in the offensive system. While McMahon is turnover prone, throwing six interceptions through three games, he has the ability to light up opponents in the passing game, throwing for a combined 577 yards and seven touchdowns in Weeks 2 and 3.

“They’ve got their quarterback thing figured out,” Holgorsen said.

Former Rice quarterback Luke McCaffery, brother of NFL star and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffery, transitioned to receiver over the offseason. So far, it has paid off as McCaffery leads the Owls in receptions (19) and receiving yards (202) while second on the team in touchdown receptions (2).

Senior receivers Bradley Rozner and Isaiah Esdale both have 155 yards receiving. Rozner leads the team with three receiving touchdowns.

Junior Ari Broussard is the feature back for the Owls, leading the team in carries (51), rushing yards (145) and touchdowns (4). Senior running back Cameron Montgomery is not far behind, tallying 132 yards on just 15 carries for a team-leading 8.8 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, the secondary is the strength of the Owls’ defense. Holding its opponent to just 178.3 yards through the air per game, Rice ranks tied for 28th nationally in passing defense. The Owls also have three interceptions on the season.

Rice’s front seven is led by junior defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu who has a team-high 2.5 sacks through three games.

The Owls have struggled against the run, allowing 147 rushing yards per game and over 6 yards per carry.

Key questions for UH

Does Sack Ave get home?

After being amongst the country’s sack leaders in 2021 and getting to the opposing quarterback nine times in the first two games of 2022, the UH defensive line failed to sack Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels in Week 3.

As a result, Daniels wreaked havoc on the Cougars’ defense with his legs on the way to being named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week.

Luckily for UH, McMahon hasn’t proven to be much of a rushing threat, averaging just 1.9 yards on 17 carries this season. While McMahon is not the mobile kind of quarterback the Cougars’ defense has seen in each of their first three games, he has put up fireworks with his arm.

The UH defense can’t afford to put up another goose egg in the sack column against Rice. The Cougars must make McMahon uncomfortable in the pocket if they don’t want to become the next victim of the Owls’ high-powered passing game.

Look for guys like senior defensive end Derek Parish, who leads the Cougars with five sacks and leads the nation in quarterback pressures amongst defensive linemen with 23 according to Pro Football Focus, and Nelson Ceaser, who ranks second with 18 quarterback pressures, to have breakout games.

Can UH cut down on penalties?

Penalties have been killer for the Cougars and are a big reason for their 1-2 start.

UH has committed double-digit penalties in each of its first three games this season, a total of 33 resulting in 274 yards lost.

Holgorsen is the first to admit that UH will continue to lose games if it fails to clean up its penalty issues, which he believes stems from the Cougars’ lack of discipline.

“It’s being undisciplined in how we look. It’s being undisciplined in how we act. It’s losing our mind and it’s hurting the team,” Holgorsen said. “If we want to win, that stuff can’t happen.”

Does UH get TE Christian Trahan involved in the passing game?

After finishing third on the team in receptions (22) in 2020 and second (37) in 2021, senior tight end Christian Trahan hasn’t been involved in Cougars’ passing game through three games this season.

Holgorsen attributes Trahan’s lack of involvement in the passing game to an unspecified injury that the tight end has been dealing with.

“He’s been battling through some things,” Holgorsen said. “He hasn’t practiced a lot.”

In order for a UH passing game that has been inconsistent to find some rhythm, quarterback Clayton Tune needs to find a way to get his old reliable tight end involved.

The good news for UH is that Trahan has been more involved in practice heading into the Bayou Bucket, per Holgorsen.

“Need to get him going,” Holgorsen said. “But he’s got to practice in order for that to happen and he should be at that point now.”

How does UH match up with Rice?

The Cougars are a 17.5-point favorite against the Owls for a reason.

On paper, UH is the better team in every aspect of the game. The problem for the Cougars has been playing like the better team.

Through three games, UH has yet to put together 60 minutes of solid, fundamentally sound football. Instead, the Cougars have displayed spurts of dominance but for the most part have largely been outplayed against UTSA, Texas Tech and Kansas.

With all the momentum in Rice’s favor coming into the game, UH can’t afford to play with the same inconsistency it has displayed through three games.

The Cougars should win this game in a convincing fashion but it all depends on if they cut down on mistakes and establish some consistency on both sides of the ball.

How to watch

Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. and the game can be streamed on ESPN+. The game can also be heard via radio on KPRC 950 AM.

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