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UH football: Previewing the road showdown against Memphis

After a season-opening win over UTSA in triple overtime, UH football has dropped three of its next four games to fall to 2-3 on the season entering Friday's AAC matchup against Memphis. | James Mueller/The Cougar

After a season-opening win over UTSA in triple overtime, UH football has dropped three of its last four games to fall to 2-3 on the season entering Friday’s AAC matchup against Memphis. | James Mueller/The Cougar

Having lost three of its last four, including its American Athletic Conference opener against Tulane, UH is looking to get back on track as the Cougars travel to Memphis to take on the Tigers on Friday night.

“Our backs are against the wall,” said UH head coach Dana Holgorsen. “We’ve got to fight.”

A look at Memphis

After a blowout season-opening loss to Mississippi State, Memphis has strung together four straight wins to sit at 4-1 (1-0 in AAC) entering Friday night’s contest against UH.

Sophomore quarterback Seth Henigan has been efficient through the air, completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns while only throwing one interception.

Henigan is more than just a threat with what he can do with his arm as he is tied for a team-high in rushing attempts, running 54 times for a total of 149 yards and two touchdowns through five weeks. The Memphis quarterback is coming off a career-high 19 rushing attempts in the Tigers’ Week 5 win over Temple.

“Tough, has a good arm, very intelligent, always goes the right place with the ball, athletic,” said UH defensive coordinator Doug Belk about Henigan. “He gets the ball out quick and is able to make good throws to the deep part of the field.”

Sophomore running back Brandon Thomas leads Memphis with 211 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Senior Asa Martin, who has 191 yards and a touchdown on the ground, and sophomore Jevyon Ducker, who has tallied 187 rushing yards and two scores, split time in the backfield with Thomas

Caden Prieskorn, the Tigers’ 6-foot-6-inch, 255-pound tight end, has been one of the main focal points of the Memphis passing game, especially in the red zone. Prieskorn leads the team with 18 receptions and five receiving touchdowns.

The receiving trio of Gabriel Rogers, Eddie Lewis and Javon Ivory have combined for 48 catches for 609 yards. While Rogers, Lewis and Ivory are Memphis’ top-three receivers in terms of yardage, they have not been major scoring threats as the group has been held to just two touchdowns.

Junior Joseph Scates has been the big play receiver for the Tigers. Though he has just four catches on the season, two have been 51 and 79-yard touchdown receptions.

Defensively, Memphis ranks as one of the worst passing defenses in the country, allowing 288 yards through the air per game. Despite the struggles against the pass, the Tigers are tied for sixth nationally in interceptions with eight and sit in a tie for ninth in total turnovers forced with 12.

Senior defensive back Quindell Johnson leads the Tigers with 38 tackles and is tied for the team-high in interceptions at two with senior linebacker Xavier Cullens, who is second on the team with 37 tackles.

Defensive linemen Jaylon Allen and Wardalis Ducksworth account for four of Memphis’ seven sacks, each with two a piece.

Key questions for UH

Does UH score in the first quarter?

The first half, particularly the first quarter, has not been kind to the Cougars’ offense in 2022.

While UH has been able to move the ball, averaging 91.2 yards in the first quarter, punching the ball into the end zone has been a major struggle.

Through five games, the UH offense has put up a total of 21 first-quarter points.

If the Cougars are going to turn their season around over the final seven regular season games, it starts with the offense putting up points in the first quarter so that UH isn’t forced to try and dig itself out of a hole like it has to each of the first five weeks.

Will Sack Avenue take advantage of the Memphis offensive line?

The Memphis offensive line has been amongst the worst in the country in protecting its quarterback, allowing 15 sacks through five games, which ranks 111th nationally.

UH is averaging just under three sacks per game and has a chance to bump that number up with a big night against Memphis on Friday.

Even without their sack leader in senior defensive end Derek Parish, the Cougars have plenty of proven quarterback disruptors headlined by defensive ends D’Anthony Jones and Nelson Ceaser, who each have two sacks on the year. 

“We got to get to this guy,” said senior defensive lineman Atlias Bell. “We got to make sure (Henigan) doesn’t keep (the ball). We got to expose them on the inside.”

Can UH make a game-changing play in special teams?

Special team heroics were an integral part of why the Cougars’ were able to go 12-2 a year ago. 

Through five games this season, special teams have largely been a nonfactor for UH. Junior receiver Nathaniel Dell returned a punt for a touchdown in each of the first two weeks of the season, the Cougars’ only game-changing plays on special teams, but both were nullified due to penalties.

A big return, blocked punt or any other special teams spark could be just what UH needs to get back into the win column.

How does UH match up with Memphis?

While the Cougars’ offense has been pretty conservative in the first half this season, look to see if UH decides to test the Memphis secondary with a few early deep shots. By taking shots early, the run game and underneath passing game would open up for the UH offense which could be key to the Cougars snapping out of their first-half scoring woes.

On the other side of the ball, the UH defense has struggled to keep the opposing quarterback in check in terms of the run game. Frank Harris (UTSA), Donovan Smith (Texas Tech) and Jalon Daniels (Kansas) all made big plays with their legs against the Cougars early in the season.

Henigan poses a similar threat with his ability to run. UH’s ability to keep Henigan contained and not let him impact the game with his legs will be key if the Cougars are to come out of Memphis with a victory.

How to watch

Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. on Friday night and will be aired on ESPN2. The game can also be listened to via radio on KPRC 950 AM.

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