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Houston Cougars vs. Arizona Wildcats Preview and Prediction


Opponents on the field will be teammates off it this week. Saturday's trip to Tucson to face the Arizona Wildcats marks a belated kickoff to the 2017 season for the Houston Cougars. Houston's original Week 1 matchup with UTSA was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey, but there are far more important matters tied to the super-storm that impacted South Texas.

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And, to that end, the University of Arizona has used this game week with Houston to help raise donations for the people affected.

This non-conference matchup — just the third ever between the two programs — exemplifies the best of sports, using the platform that athletics can provide to help others, while also pitting two teams against one another in what should be a competitive game.

The outlook for both Arizona and Houston in this 2017 season is somewhat mysterious. Houston is playing its first game with head coach Major Applewhite and takes the field for the first time with Kyle Allen behind center. For Arizona, the Wildcats rolled in Week 1 of a pivotal campaign for head coach Rich Rodriguez, but FCS team Northern Arizona provided little resistance.

Week 2 provides an intriguing snapshot of what to expect from both teams moving forward.

Houston at Arizona

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Houston -1

Three Things to Watch

1. Blocking Ed Oliver

Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver is a force, and arguably the best run-stopper in college football. In 2016, he racked up 22.5 tackles for a loss.

Oliver's presence on the interior of the Houston line frees up the edges for the Cougars' blitz. That's double the problem for Arizona, which rushed for 506 yards against Northern Arizona but showed no consistency in the passing attack.

The Wildcats must be able to establish the run to set up the pass, but if Oliver keeps the rush from developing, that will hamper quarterback Brandon Dawkins. Add the pressure coming off blitzes, and Dawkins is likely to struggle to adjust.

2. Big-play ability

In its last two games — the opener against Northern Arizona and last season's finale vs. Arizona State — Arizona has rolled up more than 1,000 yards rushing. Most of it came via explosive plays (those going for 20 yards or more). In particular, the Wildcats relied on explosive plays for touchdowns.

Houston wasn't as reliant on explosive plays in a successful 2016 campaign, although with 17 passes of 20-plus yards, the Cougars weren't exactly nickel-and-diming their way downfield, either. Consider that Arizona's defense ranked No. 95 giving up explosive pass plays of 30 yards or more, and Applewhite could open the deep ball as an integral part of the playbook.

Northern Arizona targeted 6-foot-4 receiver Emmanuel Butler early, which helped set up speedy Elijah Marks. It's a one-two punch similar to what Houston has in Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner.

3. Mid-game momentum

In its dismal 2016 season, Arizona suffered the majority of its blues in the second and third quarters. Opponents outscored the Wildcats in those periods by combined margins of 46 and 60 points, respectively. Conversely, Houston put the squeeze on its competition in the second and third quarters, boasting its two largest advantages over the course of the season — 56 and 51 points, respectively — in those periods.

Arizona turned that trend around ever so slightly against Northern Arizona, using a big second quarter to blow the game open. That's a habit the Wildcats need to establish, starting with a Houston team adept at knocking out its opponent at a game's midway juncture.

Final Analysis

It's difficult to glean too much from Week 1 for Arizona, but the continued rushing attack shown off in the 2016 finale against Arizona State bodes well for the Wildcats' chances of improving upon last season. Arizona has its most multifaceted rushing attack yet under Rich Rodriguez, with Dawkins and the rotation of running backs — J.J. Taylor, Nick Wilson, Nathan Tilford and Zach Green — all getting a chance to show their stuff in Week 1.

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With Oliver up front setting the tone, Houston presents a dramatically different challenge. How the Arizona offensive line handles him early will dictate the entire pace and feel of this contest. The Houston offense is something of a mystery with Greg Ward Jr. gone, but the receiver corps is talented, and Arizona still has deficiencies to iron out in Marcel Yates' second season as defensive coordinator.

Prediction: Houston 41, Arizona 35

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.