The Houston Cougars will hit the road for the first time in nearly a month when they head north to square off with the Memphis Tigers for an American Athletic Conference contest on Friday night. While the Cougars enjoyed a three-game stretch at home — though they won just one of the three — Friday will mark the Tigers' fourth straight matchup inside Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium (formerly Liberty Bowl), as they opened the season with two straight road games and Weeks 7 and 8 will likewise see Memphis on the road.
September was a roller coaster of sorts for Houston (2-3, 0-1), who began its 2022 campaign with a triple-overtime 37-35 win at UTSA thanks to a 17-point fourth quarter that spurred the comeback. But the Cougars have dropped three of their last four games, the lone win a 34-27 victory over Rice in Week 4. Meanwhile, Memphis opened the 2022 season with a disappointing 49-23 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville but bounced back with four straight wins to climb to the top of the AAC standings. The Tigers are the only AAC team with two conference wins and join Cincinnati and Tulane as the only 4-1 teams in the conference.
That theme of streaks can also be tied to this series, especially in the last dozen meetings between these two teams. Houston came away victorious when Memphis came to town last season for the Cougars' first win over Memphis since 2015 when they clinched their sixth consecutive win over the Tigers to mark the longest winning streak by either team in this series.
Houston at Memphis
When Houston Has the Ball
As seen in the season-opening win, a key struggle for Houston has been slow starts; the Cougars have scored just 21 first-quarter points and 41 first-half points in their five games thus far. The same can be said for last week's 27-24 loss against Tulane — Houston's third overtime finish in five games — when the Cougars managed just one second-quarter touchdown for its only score of the first half.
But with the Cougars managing 33.5 points per game in the first four weeks, second-half scoring has been a key feather in the cap for this offense. That was apparent once again last week against Tulane when Houston needed 14 fourth-quarter points to come back and force overtime. Those ultimately were not enough, however, and the 24 points marked the first time the Cougars failed to score at least 30 in a game.
Even though Houston came up short, wide receiver Nathaniel Dell certainly did his part. He notched his second two-touchdown game of the season to pace the attack with eight catches for 73 yards. Dell has been quarterback Clayton Tune's favorite target, but the quarterback hasn't been afraid to spread the ball around either. Tune finished the loss to the Green Wave with 208 yards on 22-of-33 passing, hooking up with eight different players on the night. For the season, Tune is completing 65 percent of his passes for 240 yards per game with a respectable 9:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
If Tune and the Cougars can get things going through the air, they could be in for a productive showing since Memphis is giving up 288 yards per game through the air. Only eight other FBS teams are surrendering more. But the Tigers have thrived in generating takeaways. They lead the AAC with eight interceptions and 12 total turnovers through five games, with five picks in their last two contests alone. Memphis has already returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
When Memphis Has the Ball
On the flip side, Memphis has done well to limit its turnovers, with Seth Henigan throwing just one interception. He also enters this week among the top five in the AAC in passing yards (255.2 per game) and touchdowns (nine). Five different Tigers have recorded 12 or more receptions so far, led by tight end Caden Prieksorn's 18. He also has caught more than half of Henigan's touchdowns (five) while Garbiel Rogers leads the way with 231 receiving yards. Memphis' passing attack hasn't been overly explosive (team is averaging 12.2 yards per reception) although there have been seven catches that have covered 40-plus yards, the most in the AAC.
On the ground, Brandon Thomas leads the way with 211 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Three others, including Henigan, have run for more than 100 yards, and the Tigers have scored 11 times on the ground. But the rushing attack is averaging a jus four yards per carry, and their 147.2 yards per game ranks eighth in the conference. That will need to improve moving forward since it doesn't seem that the passing game can carry this offense alone.
On the other side, Houston's defense has had a hard time slowing down opposing offenses. The Cougars are giving up 34 points and 408 yards per game, to rank second to last in the AAC in both categories. Although they have been vulnerable through the air (273.8 ypg, 12 TDs allowed), they are capable of making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Houston averages 7.2 tackles for a loss per game (15th in FBS) and also has 13 sacks through five contests. Unfortunately, the team is without Derek Parish, who leads with 4.5 sacks but suffered a season-ending torn bicep two games ago.
While the Cougars have had a really hard time in keeping teams off the scoreboard, their biggest hurdle has been with keeping flags in referees' pockets. In fact, no FBS team has been penalized more than Houston, who has been called for more than 10 per game for nearly 91 yards. Combine those two struggles with Memphis' momentum, and the Tigers shouldn't have a hard time closing out the homestand with a win.
Prediction: Memphis 37, Houston 31
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the editor-in-chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
*Price as of publication.