No. 6 Houston rising behind stingy, hard-hitting defense
While dazzling quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has gotten the lion's share of the attention during Houston's rise to prominence, the sixth-ranked Cougars have dominated this season behind one of the nation's top defenses.
That unit, led by linebacker Steven Taylor and freshman lineman Ed Oliver, has capitalized on turnovers and kept opponents out of the end zone.
Houston (3-0) ranks 11th nationally in total defense (257.7 yards a game), 13th in scoring (13 points a game) and first against the run (38.3 yards). The Cougars returned two interceptions for touchdowns during the fourth quarter of a 40-16 win at Cincinnati last week. Houston limited Oklahoma to 70 rushing yards and Cincinnati to 30.
Second-year coach Tom Herman, an offensive wizard who remains on everyone's short list for prominent vacancies after the season, credits defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who left Utah State in 2015 to join the Houston staff.
''I knew what kinds of defenses kept me up at night as an offensive coordinator, so I knew I wanted to run that kind of defense,'' said Herman, whose team is heavily favored in a nonconference game at Texas State on Saturday.
Taylor, a senior, produced nine tackles, including two sacks, and returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown at Cincinnati. Herman said the three-man defensive line creates situations for Taylor to excel.
''Steve gets to reap the benefits of the dirty work that those guys do,'' Herman said.
Oliver, a five-star recruit from Houston, already has a reputation for energetic, relentless pursuit of ball carriers.
''He opens a lot of gaps for me,'' Taylor said. ''He is a blessing to the team.''
First-year Texas State coach Everett Withers noticed something unexpected while watching Houston defeat Oklahoma 33-23.
''I thought they physically beat Oklahoma,'' Withers said.
Some things to look for when the Cougars and Bobcats kick off Saturday:
ROUGH STRETCH: Houston is the highest-ranked Texas State opponent since the Bobcats moved to the Bowl Subdivision in 2012. This game comes a week after Texas State lost 42-3 at No. 17 Arkansas. Texas State received a reported $1 million for the game at Arkansas. Withers has others reasons as well for facing good teams.
''I think there is a lot of value in playing top-quality opponents,'' Withers said. ''You learn more about your team when you play teams that are elite. I don't necessarily like playing them back to back.''
WARD WATCH: Ward suffered an injury to his right shoulder in the season opener against Oklahoma. He sat out the next game, against Lamar, and then accounted for 399 yards and ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns at Cincinnati. He received treatment on the sideline during the game. Herman said Ward would receive treatment and evaluations during the week.
''He's one of the best competitors I've ever been around, and he's taken a lot of big hits,'' Herman said.
DEPTH CHART: Through three games, Texas State has used more than 30 freshmen and sophomores on offense, defense and special teams. Withers said he encourages his staff to take chances with younger players.
''I've challenged every one of our assistants coaches; I've challenged myself to get them on the field,'' Withers said. ''I keep asking, `Who you saving?'''
BIG CROWD: Houston is expected to attract one of the top four crowds at Bobcat Stadium since the facility was expanded to a listed capacity of 30,000 for Texas State's arrival in FBS. The top three: Texas Tech in 2012 (33,006), Navy in 2014 (32,007) and Southern Miss in 2015 (27,250).
HERMAN, THE EARLY YEARS: Herman was an offensive graduate assistant at Texas in 1999-2000 when Withers was coaching the Longhorns' defensive backs. They also worked together at Ohio State.
''He was one of those guys you knew was going to be a really good coach,'' Withers said. ''You could tell when guys are sharp, understand the game, understand how to build relationships with the players.''