Just 12 days after opening the season against a top-5 team in Oklahoma, the Houston Cougars will play a Friday game at NRG against Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars.
Mike Leach has remained the most ‘pure’ of the Air Raid coaches: wide splits, very few called runs, QBs that can audible at any time, high-percentage throws, good blocking up front, and be very good on special teams.
In winning 11 games last season, the Cougs produced one of the top offenses in the nation: they were 1st in passing offense and completions and 15th in scoring. The offensive line allowed just 13 sacks and 47 TFL, finishing in the top 10 in both categories.
Quarterback Gardner Minshew won PAC 12 Offensive Player of the Year and was the key to their attack. His offensive numbers were fantastic although perhaps a red herring. Individually, Minshew finished first in completion percentage, total completions, and passing yards per game. He also ended 2018 second in total offense, 4th in passing TDs, and 5th in points responsible for.
Minshew’s value rested in his ability to control the game and methodically get down the field whereas someone like D’Eriq King created touchdowns at a prodigious rate. In 10 games before the injury, King was #1 in passing TDs, points responsible for and points responsible for per game. King was responsible for 10 points more per game.
Now, Minshew is gone yet King returns to lead his explosive offense. Leach has three guys that have legit shots at starting for him in the fall but that’s more of a problem than an opportunity.
Eastern Washington grad transfer Gage Gubrud is in line for the job but was out all spring with an ankle injury, suffered during one of Leach’s infamous late night workouts. Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, both 6’3″ redshirt seniors, each have a shot to start, too. Coug fans and beat writers believe it will be Gubrud taking the field in the opener.
Wazzu also loses their top running back James Williams although returning RB Max Borghi averaged over 5.5 ypc last year. Either way, Leach’s offense is not going to run the ball. Washington State averaged around 21 carries per game last year but, in close games, that number drops to 17 (including 13 attempts for 0 yards vs. Utah). By comparison, UH ran over 41 times a game.
The only way these rush numbers change is if Leach changes. Gubrud ran an effective RPO at Eastern as he finished runner-up for FCS player of the year twice. But will Leach give him the autonomy to check into a run called for himself? Leach’s system demands lots of reps to get the timing down which is why I’d be surprised if Gubrud is given the freedom to take off.
Gubrud will get WSU’s top two receivers back from last year in Dezmon Patmon (816 yards, 13.4 ypc) and Tay Martin (685 yards, 9.9 ypc). But in typical Leach fashion, they will continue to spread it out: last year, the top 5 receivers each had 52 or more catches and averaged just under 5 receptions a game.
This means Joe Cauthen’s nickel and dime defenses will be in heavy use. That’s the prime matchup: WSU’s new QB and his WRs vs. UH’s new defensive backfield. Can Gubrud make the reads and the throws in his first game on the road? (and in his first big-stadium experience)? And can the UH DBs get in position and communicate well enough to slow down the Leach Air Raid?
The early odds from the Golden Nugget had WSU favored by 10 when they were released but that number had been bet down to 7 points within hours. The Cougs are trendy due to last year’s record as well as the UH’s defensive woes This line will continue to decrease as the game gets closer.
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