After struggling with crosstown rival Rice in the first half of the season opener, the Houston Cougars improved to 2-0 and made a statement with an impressive 45-18 victory over Arizona last Saturday. One Power 5 opponent down, one to go for the Cougars, who travel to Lubbock to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Texas Tech comes in at 1-1 following a 47-27 loss to Ole Miss in Houston and a 77-0 domination of Lamar. In the last tune-up before Big 12 play, and with little room for error for head coach Kliff Kingsbury to guide the Red Raiders back to a bowl game, the in-state clash is an important one for both programs.
Houston at Texas Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 4:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Houston quarterback D’Eriq King has been one of the most impressive quarterbacks of the young season. King, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound former receiver who beat out five-star Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen last year and held off highly recruited Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady this fall, has led the Cougars to 45-point outbursts in back-to-back games. A versatile playmaker, King has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 566 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception. He has also contributed 64 rushing yards on 12 carries and leads the team with three scores on the ground.
New year, new week, new quarterback(s), same results for Texas Tech. McLane Carter earned the nod to start the season opener for the Red Raiders, but he suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter against Ole Miss and hasn’t played since. Carter completed 4-of-7 passes for 49 yards against the Rebels. He was 23-for-46 for 359 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in 2017 across four games, including one start.
Carter may or may not be healthy enough to return for Week 3, but freshman Alan Bowman has played well in his absence. Bowman has completed 51 of his 74 pass attempts (68.9 percent) over the last two weeks for 555 yards and three TDs without an interception. He was 22-for-25 (88 percent) for 282 yards and two scores in his first start a week ago. Whether Carter or Bowman starts against Houston, Tech will have a capable triggerman to run its pass-heavy offense. And either QB will have the benefit of a solid receiving corps; four Red Raiders have posted 100 receiving yards to date.
2. Limiting big plays
Led by highly productive players like Dakota Allen, Jah’Shawn Johnson and Justus Parker, Texas Tech made great strides defensively in 2017. Entering 2018 with 10 returning starters, some fans and analysts wondered if the Red Raiders might actually be good on defense for a change. However, the opener was an all-too-common disappointment as the unit allowed 546 total yards and 9.1 yards per play. Nevertheless, there is still reason to be optimistic. After all, Ole Miss has arguably the best receiving corps in the nation, and an explosive offense overall. Also, the Red Raiders shut out Lamar last week, holding the Cardinals to just 182 yards and 2.46 yards per play. Lamar was an FCS opponent, but it was the first shutout for Texas Tech against anyone in 12 years.
Level of competition notwithstanding, Tech improved its performance mightily in limiting big plays in Week 2. Ole Miss racked up eight plays of 20 yards or more — seven of them going for at least 30 yards. The Red Raiders even surrendered a pair of 50-plus yard plays to the Rebels. Last week? Lamar didn’t produce a single play of 20 yards or more. Of course, Houston is much closer to Ole Miss than Lamar in terms of offensive explosiveness. The Cougars have already produced four plays of 50 yards or more this season.
3. Heisman moment?
The 2018 Heisman race is wide open. Early contenders like Jonathan Taylor, Tua Tagovailoa and Will Grier are off to great starts, while Bryce Love and Khalil Tate have started slowly. Part of Tate’s problem is that he had to face a defense led by Houston star defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Though he recorded a modest five tackles and 0.5 tackles for a loss last week against the Wildcats, Oliver remains one of the most feared defenders in the country. He almost always faces double teams (and often triple teams) at the line of scrimmage.
With no clear leader in the Heisman race, there is an opportunity for defensive players like Oliver and Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa to stake a claim if either can post eye-popping statistics. Oliver, a junior who has already declared for the 2019 NFL Draft, has a bigger hill to climb as an interior lineman, but he’s capable. Though he has yet to record a sack in 2018, Oliver has 18 total tackles, 4.0 TFLs and six quarterback hurries. But a big game against an explosive offense from a Power 5 program (the last Houston will face in the regular season) could boost his chances — especially if the uniquely talented H-Town native produces a highlight-reel performance in front of a national network television audience.
With D'Eriq King leading the offense and Ed Oliver pacing the defense, Houston looks like a legitimate contender in the AAC, as well as in the race for a New Year’s Six spot, through the first two weeks of the season. The Red Raiders have been more difficult to diagnose. Despite losing its starting quarterback early, Texas Tech appears as dynamic as ever offensively. Of course, Tech has yet to face a defense as good as Houston’s. And when the Red Raiders defense was tasked with slowing down an offense packed with playmakers in Week 1, the unit failed. The Cougars are a slight favorite to win on the road, and for good reason.
Prediction: Houston 45, Texas Tech 42
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.