Where to Watch: 8:00 ET Tonight, ESPN
Betting Line: LOU -14.5, O/U 68.5
Last Time: In a tight contest throughout, Houston forced four turnovers in the game and got a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to upset Louisville 34-31. Greg Ward had 334 total yards (236 passing, 98 rushing) and three touchdowns to lead the Cougars, while Lamar Jackson was benched in the fourth quarter for Kyle Bolin. Bolin led two fourth quarter touchdown drives but fell short in the end, as a game-tying 53-yard field goal was tipped and fell short.
The all-time series between the Cougars and Cardinals is tied at 8-8.
About the Houston Cougars
One of the most intriguing teams entering the 2016 season, the Houston Cougars started off as a potential playoff contender, with a monster win over Oklahoma on a neutral field. After beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl and then downing Oklahoma in the season opener, the Cougars were primed for a potential shot as the first Group of Five school in the CFP.
But after two crushing losses to Navy and SMU, they have long fallen from that status. They are still a solid team across the board, but the Cougars are fighting for a Group of Five bid as a two-loss team against an undefeated Western Michigan team and Boise State, who has one loss at Wyoming. It isn’t where they want to be, but this is still the game that Cougars’ fans have been looking forward to the most this season.
Head coach Tom Herman has been the hottest name in coaching searches, being linked to job openings at LSU and rumored to take over as Texas head coach. It shows, when he immediately took Houston to prominence last year and landed a bona fide five-star recruit as a Group of Five head coach. Herman might be the next big thing in college football, almost similar to how Bobby Petrino rose to prominence at Louisville in his first tenure; explosive offense, tenacious defense and a “take-all-comers” mentality. He has playmakers that have helped his rise like quarterback Greg Ward and skill players like Chance Allen, but he has captivated the hearts and minds of many in Houston.
Players to Watch
- QB Greg Ward: Ward was one of the top quarterbacks Louisville would have to face this season, and that is still largely true. He is a playmaker at its epitome, especially as a dual-threat with his feet. He’ll be entering the game less than 100% due to his shoulder injury, but when he is on the field, he is a dangerous threat against the Cardinals. He’s lacked consistency as an elite passer, but when Ward is on, the Houston offense is remarkably better.
- DT Ed Oliver: Oliver is likely the best true freshman in the entire country, and he will likely do similar things that Clemson’s Christian Wilkins was able to do against Louisville’s guards and center. Oliver reminds me a lot of Ndamukong Suh, in that he is a game-changing defensive tackle that commands double teams, or risk getting your backfield swallowed by him. It’s likely that he will be projected very high on draft boards if he continues his development, and as a five-star recruit from a Group of Five conference, he’s changed the level of recruiting Houston has done in Herman’s tenure.
- CB Howard Wilson: With five interceptions and eight pass breakups, Wilson stands as the best threat in the secondary for Houston. Wilson has stellar ball skills and will try to keep Louisville’s receivers from stretching the field, leaving Houston’s linebackers to try to defend Cole Hikutini underneath. Houston has not been as efficient in forcing turnovers as they were in 2014 and 2015, but Wilson could be due for a big game if Houston has a shot to pull off the upset.
Keys to the Game
- Contain Ward’s running ability: It goes without saying that Louisville will need to keep Ward bottled in the pocket, and force him into either throwing into double coverage, or taking a monster sack. Ward hasn’t been able to become the threat with his feet that he was last year, either due to the offensive line or Ward just trying to extend plays but failing to make the most of it. With Louisville’s pass rush returning to form after Devonte Fields’ return, the front seven has to play much better than they did last year. Devonte Fields and the Louisville linebackers have to get pressure on Ward and have a solid game to contain the Houston offense.
- Limit Oliver’s impact: It goes without saying that Oliver will be an instrumental part of Louisville’s gameplan. Expect a lot of double teams and keys on him, otherwise Lamar Jackson and the backfield will see their options stopped by him before they even begin. Limiting Oliver’s impact will help Louisville run the football against a unit that is third in rushing defense, and also opens the door for big play-action passes down the field.
- Protect the football: Louisville struggled to take care of their football last week, with three first half turnovers putting them down 12-0 to the Demon Deacons at home. Fortunately for Louisville, they limited Wake Forest to just 12 points. Houston forced four turnovers last year against Louisville, and managed to score a majority of their 34 points off of it. Louisville will need to protect the football and try to keep Houston’s offense off the field, because this is a game where Houston’s up-tempo offense is able to hang with Louisville. It also helps that Houston is tied for 100th in turnover margin at -4, so Louisville could also be able to stay alive with forcing some of their own.
Justin Krueger: 31-30 Louisville. Back in August, I had this game pegged as a loss for the Cardinals, mainly due to the threat that Greg Ward is, how good Tom Herman of a coach is, and how underrated the Cougars defense actually is. Louisville likely won’t get the credit for a tough win that this will be, but I think they are in for a fight at Houston. This should be a game that definitely covers the two-touchdown spread, and I expect the Ward v. Jackson showdown to provide a lot of excitement. But Louisville will run the ball effectively through Lamar Jackson, and the Cardinals escape with a victory.
Jeremy Wahman: 34-17
Jacob Pratt: 41-14
Jeff Nunn: 49-17
Mitch Motley: 54-17
Paige Sherrard: 28-10