The Houston Cougars and Tulsa Golden Hurricane will kick off Friday night in an important American Athletic Conference contest.
Houston opened conference play with a 28-20 victory over Navy last week, which improved its record to 3-1 overall. The Cougars have won three in a row since a 38-21 loss to Texas Tech in the season opener.
Tulsa lost its first three games of the season, including a surprising 19-17 upset at the hands of FCS opponent UC Davis in Week 1. The Golden Hurricane also lost tough games against Oklahoma State and Ohio State but finally broke through with a 41-34 win over Arkansas State a week ago to pick up some momentum ahead of AAC play.
Houston at Tulsa
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Tulsa -3.5
When Houston Has the Ball
On Sept. 18, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune left the 45-0 victory over FCS opponent Grambling early with an injury, and it was unclear whether he would be available against Navy. Tune started against the Midshipmen and put together arguably his best performance of the young season, completing 22 of 30 pass attempts for a season-high 257 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. The senior has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 729 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions, four of them coming in the loss to Texas Tech. Though he’s been a very productive runner in years past with more than 500 career rushing yards, Tune has gained only 68 yards with one score on the ground so far.
Nathaniel Dell has been Tune's top target over the past two seasons, and he leads the Cougars in every receiving category: 25 receptions, 342 yards, and three touchdowns. Tight end Christian Trahan has emerged as a favorite as well and has caught 14 passes for 109 yards. All-American punt returner and starting cornerback Marcus Jones has added a spark to the offense with 10 receptions, including one touchdown, for 109 yards.
Freshman Alton McCaskill has stepped up for the Cougars in the running game and leads with 233 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 51 attempts. McCaskill has also caught eight passes for 70 yards and one touchdown. Ta'Zhawn Henry has 94 yards and three scores on 22 attempts, and veteran Mulbah Car, who has been slowed by injuries, has gained 65 rushing yards on 19 carries. Henry and Car are both capable receivers out of the backfield as well and have combined for 10 catches and 46 yards.
When Tulsa Has the Ball
Davis Brin helped save Tulsa's AAC championship hopes with 266 yards and two touchdowns in relief during a 30-24 win over Tulane in 2020, and he took over as the team's starter this season following the departure of Zach Smith. Brin struggled in the opener against UC Davis, completing 53.6 percent of his passes for 202 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. He has been picked off three times in the past two games but has also thrown for 783 yards and five touchdowns in that span as well. The junior ranks second in the AAC and No. 12 nationally with 302.3 passing yards per contest.
Keylon Stokes led the team in receiving in each of the previous three seasons, and has 115 yards on six receptions this year, but has been unavailable during the last two games. Josh Johnson stepped up with nine catches for 127 yards in the win over Arkansas State and posted eight grabs for 149 yards and a score against Ohio State. Johnson leads the Hurricane with 23 receptions and 317 yards. Sam Crawford Jr. scored on both of his catches and gained 105 yards in the win last week, and he has 12 catches for 237 yards overall. JuanCarlos Santana was also a major factor with five receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown last week, and he has 17 receptions and 259 yards to date.
The running game is deep as well. Shamari Brooks led Tulsa in rushing in 2018 and '19, and missed 2020 due to injury, but he again leads the team with 292 yards and 52 carries, and has scored one touchdown. Brooks has shared the workload with Deneric Prince and Anthony Watkins. Prince had 151 yards in Week 1 and is tied with Watkins for the team lead with two rushing touchdowns. He has 221 yards on 47 carries. Watkins ran for 115 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown, last week and has 175 yards and two scores on just 17 attempts.
Tulsa made it to the AAC title game last season on the strength of its defense. The Golden Hurricane ranked seventh in the country with an average of 4.70 yards allowed per play last season, but opponents have gained 5.65 this year, which sits 85th on the FBS leaderboard. Meanwhile, Houston has held its opponents to 4.58 yards per snap this season, which ranks 25th. In non-garbage possessions against FBS opponents only, as calculated by Brian Fremeau, Tulsa ranks 89th with 6.14 yards per play allowed and Houston ranks 52nd with 5.43. In similar situations, the Golden Hurricane ranks No. 59 in Expected Points Added per play (0.062), according to cfb-graphs.com, while the Cougars rank No. 22 (-0.092). Of course, the Cougars have faced weaker competition in non-conference play, so both the raw stats and advanced metrics can be misleading at this early stage.
Brin has improved quickly over his first four starts, and even without Stokes, Tulsa has a deep set of skill position players around him. The Golden Hurricane also have home-field advantage and are favored. Nevertheless, Houston has been the better team in 2021 and has a talented defense built in large part through transfers. The Cougars also have an edge at quarterback given Tune's experience and production to date. Expect a close game between two evenly matched teams jockeying for position in the conference, but the Cougars are very capable of pulling off an upset on the road.
Prediction: Houston 30, Tulsa 28
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