The Tulane Green Wave and Houston Cougars will open American Athletic Conference play against each other on Friday night. The Green Wave come into this game following their first loss of the season while the Cougars rallied late to even their record. But one week doesn't tell the whole story of how both teams' non-conference slates went.
Tulane got off to a 3-0 start, including a 17-10 road upset of Kansas State two weeks ago. It was the best start for the program in 24 years, but the Green Wave couldn't keep it going at home this past Saturday night against Southern Miss. Despite outgaining the Golden Eagles by nearly 200 yards (451-253), Tulane made one too many mistakes (INT returned for a touchdown, missed field goal, blocked field goal, blocked punt) and fell 27-24.
It's been a bumpier ride for Houston (2-2), who also had to deal with a much tougher non-conference slate. After opening with a 37-35 road win over defending Conference USA champion UTSA, the Cougars lost in overtime on the road to Texas Tech (33-30) and then fell at home to still-undefeated Kansas, 48-30. But Houston also had a tougher time than expected on Saturday night against Rice, needing its defense to come with some big plays late to escape with a 34-27 victory over the Owls.
Houston has dominated the series with Tulane (lead 19-7 overall), especially at home. The Cougars have won the past three meetings and eight of the last nine played in the Lone Star State. Last season, they defeated the Green Wave 40-22 in New Orleans, rallying from a five-point deficit in the third quarter to score the final 23 points in the game.
Tulane at Houston
When Tulane Has the Ball
The Green Wave like to run the ball, and when they do, it's with three main guys. Quarterback Michael Pratt and running backs Tyjae Spears and Iverson Celestine have each carried it at least 36 times this season and have combined for nearly 80 percent of the team's rushing yardage. Considering Tulane ranks fourth in the AAC with 179.8 yards per game, it's not a bad trio to lean on. Spears leads the way with 205 yards and a conference-best six touchdowns. Pratt is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, a testament to his dual-threat abilities.
Pratt also has seven touchdown passes with three interceptions along with 905 passing yards. He and two other quarterbacks that have seen minimal snaps have really spread the ball around. Nineteen different players have recorded a catch in the first four games. Five already have more than 100 receiving yards, with Shae Wyatt's 184 leading the way. Jha'Quan Jackson and Tyrick James have each caught two touchdown passes from Pratt while Dea Dea McDougle is the only one with double-digit receptions so far.
Houston's challenging non-conference slate shows up in its defensive stats. The Cougars have given up 36 points and 443 yards per game. Those numbers place them last and second to last in the conference and near the bottom of (116th and 114th, respectively) of the entire FBS. Houston has been more susceptible to the pass (295 ypg) but also has surrendered eight rushing touchdowns in four games. The defense does have five interceptions so far but it must move forward without top pass rusher Derek Parish (5 sacks, tied for third in FBS), who will miss the rest of the season with a torn bicep.
When Houston Has the Ball
Clayton Tune has put up similar numbers to Pratt, with seven touchdowns and three picks, although he has the edge in passing yards (993 to 905). Tune's favorite target is far and away Nathaniel Dell, who has twice as many receptions (25) and yards (380) as anyone else on the team, along with three touchdown catches. The Cougars' ground game was dealt a blow this spring when Alton McCaskill IV, who ran for 961 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman last season, tore his ACL. Ta'Zhawn Henry and Brandon Campbell have shared the load out of the backfield thus far, and the duo has combined to average 108 rushing yards per game. They each have two rushing touchdowns, as does Tune.
If there's been a specific issue for Houston on offense, it's what happens once it gets into the red zone. On 20 trips, the Cougars have scored 18 times, but only 10 of those have been touchdowns. Their 50 percent TD rate is the second-worst mark in the AAC, ahead of only Navy (42.9).
Similar to Houston, Tulane's non-conference competition (UMass, Alcorn State, Kansas State, Southern Miss) has certainly contributed to its stats, but credit to the defense for doing its job. The Green Wave have given up a total of five touchdowns in four games and has more interceptions (four) than scoring passes allowed (three) so far. Tulane has been stingy on third down (25 percent conversion rate allowed) and has not yielded many explosive plays (only five of 20-plus yards). This has been critical to the Green Wave's success since the defense has only generated four sacks (tied for last in AAC) and 22 tackles for a loss (tied for seventh).
These two teams are very similar on the stat sheet offensively. But defense is where Houston has had a problem so far. Actually, it's more than one, but the Cougars' non-conference slate has to be taken into consideration, having already played two Big 12 teams (Kansas and Texas Tech) that are a combined 7-1. Tulane, meanwhile, was making the most of its lighter schedule, including a road upset of a Kansas State team that just knocked off Oklahoma in Norman this past Saturday, before stubbing its toe at home against Southern Miss.
Houston also has been near unbeatable at home against Tulane in the teams' head-to-head history. The Cougars are more battle-tested leading into the start of AAC play and that shows on Friday night with a hard-fought win.
Prediction: Houston 31, Tulane 27
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