Rice football has the opportunity to claim a landmark upset early on in their 2018 season. Can they make enough plays to overcome the more talented Houston Cougars?
Major Applewhite saw mixed results in his inaugural campaign as the head coach of the Houston Cougars. After having his first game canceled by weather concerns, Houston beat Arizona and Rice to open the 2017 season. Defeating Arizona was an important statement win for the program, even if it came before the electrifying Khalil Tate was inserted at quarterback.
Houston would go on to finish the season 7-5. They were on the wrong end of four one-score decisions, only falling by double-digits once, a 45-17 shellacking at the hands of Tulsa.
Their marquee win, over Arizona, was close; the Rice game was not. Houston trounced the Owls 38-3, scoring all of their points before halftime. Game No. 41 in series history went to the Cougars, who hold the lead in the series 30-11. Rice hasn’t defeated the Cougars since 2010 and enters 2018 carrying a four-game losing streak to their cross-town rival.
Kyle Postma and Kyle Allen each saw meaningful time as the starting quarterback for the Cougars last season. Both of those passers are gone, leaving D’Eriq King as the only experienced quarterback on the roster. King appeared in 10 games last season. After Postma and Allen had their struggles and injuries, King was named the starter for the final four contests.
A converted wide-receiver, King adds athleticism to a competent arm. He had a career-best 141 rushing yards against Tulane and topped out at 330 yards through the air in a win over East Carolina. As long as he’s under center, Houston is going to be dangerous on offense. It was King that led Houston over undefeated USF, who were contenders for the AAC title entering the final week of the regular season.
Complementing King out of the backfield is former Texas transfer Duke Catalon. He never saw the field with the Longhorns but didn’t miss a beat when he got to Houston. Catalon possesses a curious combination of speed and power plus soft hands. He’s already caught 59 passes in two seasons at Houston, and that’s in addition to his 1,165 yards on the ground over the past two seasons. The 6-foot, 215-pound grinder has the potential to be a work-horse back, should Applewhite choose to use him that way.
The biggest question mark for Houston entering the season is the wide receiver position. Gone are Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner, their top two receivers from a year ago. Their No. 3 pass catcher was D’Eriq King, but he’s slated to be the full-time quarterback. That leaves a pair of sophomores, Courtney Clark and Keith Corbin, who combined for just 23 catches, 399 yards and two touchdowns last season
The offense is going to be productive, but the defensive unit will be the difference maker for Houston in 2018. The Cougars return an upperclassmen starter at every position. Returning starters is a relatively bogus statistic, but in this case, the combination of experience and talent are enough to suggest the Cougars will be even better on defense this season than they were a year ago when the finished second in the AAC in yards per play allowed and fourth in total defense.
The preeminent reason for that success is future 2019 NFL Draft first round pick Ed Oliver. The junior-to-be made waves earlier this offseason when he announced his declaration for the draft. It’s not uncommon for underclassmen to know they’re jumping to the next level before the season, but Oliver’s year-ahead proclamation is a first.
Unfortunately for the rest of the opponents on the Cougars’ schedule, Oliver intends to play out his final season. A true contender for the Heisman Trophy, at least as much as any defensive player can be expected to contend, Oliver is a game-changer on every snap. He’ll anchor a defense that allowed just 23.8 points per game.
Behind Oliver, Emeke Egbule and Joeal Williams should provide strong build blocks at the linebacker position. Both saw increased roles last season and are primed to be season-long starters in 2018. Pass defense, their Achilles heel last season is the biggest question mark. Jeremey Winchester and Isiah Johnson were serviceable on the outside, but their best bet to improve is continued pressure up the middle from Oliver and Co. in the front.