Each game for the 14th ranked (13th in the latest BCS standings) and undefeated (8-0, 4-0 in CUSA) Cougars will be a game of the century as they look to improve on their best start since the 1979 and 1990 teams. The only blemishes on both teams were losses in their ninth games to the Whorns, losing 21-13 in 79 and 45-24 in 1990. The 1979 team finished the season ranked 5th in the nation after a 17-14 victory over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. The 1990 team finished ranked 10th at 10-1 but could not participate in a bowl game because of probation. As an optimist I look forward to seeing if the Cougars actually get picked for a BCS bowl game. This will happen only if: The Coogs are a Conference champion and ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings or ranked in the top 16 of the BCS standings on Bowl Selection Sunday and its ranking is better than that of a champion of an automatically qualifying (AQ) conference. First things first, however, as the Cougars need to keep winning and cannot afford to overlook any opponents, which brings us to the Blazers.
UAB (1-7, 1-4 in CUSA east) is coached by Neil Callaway who is 16-40 in his fifth season as head coach. He was the offensive line coach for the Cougars first CUSA championship team in 1996. The head coach of that 1996 team was none other than current Blazer's offensive coordinator, Kim Helton. Many Cougar fans would use the term "interesting" in describing the Helton era at UH. Unfortunately, many Blazer fans would not use the same term in describing Helton's offense at UAB. One word comes to mind; ugly.
The Blazers are ranked 116th in the nation in scoring as they average a meager 14.9 points per game. They are 95th in the nation in total offense with 336 yards per game – 228 throwing (64th) and 108 per game on the ground (104th). Their rushing totals are surprising considering they have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation, with 158 career starts among their five linemen- lead by senior right guard Terrence Edge and left tackle Matt McCants with 40 and 38 starts respectively. Of their five starters, they have only missed one start the entire season (McCants). They combine for a weight of 287 pounds on average and should be one of the few teams the Cougars front four can bull rush, especially will or rush backer Sammy Brown, who's 18.5 tackles for loss lead the nation and his 8.5 sacks have him ranked 3rd. Look for defensive linemen Dominic Miller and David Hunter to collapse the pocket of the Blazer's quarter backs. End Eric Braswell has also started to play better, especially in batting balls down, as he has started five consecutive games.
Speaking of the QBs, the Blazers are lead by Jonathan Perry, whom has completed 96 of 171 passes for 1.057 yards in eight games this season. He has thrown for two touch downs and six interceptions as he has only started in four games although he will be the starter for the rest of the season as the Blazers starter to begin the season – Bryan Ellis, has been lost for the rest of the season due to an undisclosed injury. Perry's 56 percent accuracy rate suggests the Coogs secondary might be able to jump some of the Blazers wide receiver routes as their eleven interceptions have them second in CUSA and tied for fourteenth nationally. Young corner backs Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates, or as Cougar defensive coordinator Brian Stewart likes to call them- his "welter weight corners" are starting to show some consistency in the defenses zone packages. Bates leads the team with three interceptions. D.J. Hayden locks down the other corner spot as he is now starting to round into regular season form after sitting out a few weeks due to a hamstring injury. His four tackles for loss are first for the defenses secondary members. One note to watch is that although Ellis has only started four games, the sophomore did complete 31 of 42 passes for 327 yards two weeks ago versus one of the top rated defenses in the nation in their lone victory of the season – a 26-24 victory over Central Florida.
Catching those passes are receivers Jackie Williams, Patrick Hearn and Nick Adams. Williams leads the team with 45 receptions for 423 yards while both Hearn and Adams both have fewer than 25 on the season. Hearn, not to be confused with Cougars receiver Patrick "Hearn" Edwards and Adams both have 265 yards on the season. For those not in the know, Edwards is from the tiny Texas town of Hearn and was given that nickname his freshman year by Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin until he started showing that he cold play, as Sumlin said during today's weekly media press conference, "He is pretty good for a walk on. He plays really, really fast, but what people don't see is how he plays without the football. Patrick is a leader by example at practice. What you see at the game is a by-product of his work ethic off the field and it's contagious. It's been particularly contagious with a team that has so many guys that can do things with the ball." The three Blazers receivers have one TD reception among them in Hearn's (UAB's, not the Cougars), and have only four TDs passing on the year, due do the rotating QBs no doubt. Their lone deep threat with a 21.3 per catch average on only nine receptions (but with two TDs) looks to be JaMarcus Nelson. None of the Blazers receivers look to be the physically intimidating type that would cause matchup problems for the Cougars secondary.
The Blazers best receiving threat might be their leading rusher in tailback Pat Shed. The 5-foot-9, 175 pounder is the definition of a ‘scat back.' He also leads the team with 223 rushing yards but has been out for the past three games with an undisclosed injury. He may or may not play Saturday night. The other Blazer threats on the ground are Greg Franklin, Darrin Reaves and Dontavius Jackson. Franklin averages 5.5 yards per carry on his 35 carries (194 yards) while Reaves has 167 yards on 36 carries. Jackson is the ‘bruiser' of the trio at 205 pounds and has only 83 yards on 20 carries. Jackson, Reaves and Shed all have one rushing TD each as the team has only six in total.
Defensively, under defensive coordinator Tommy West, the Blazers play a ‘4-3' scheme. The assistant coach of more than thirty years likes to play it close to the vest in his play calling. They rank 112th in scoring defense allowing more than 35 points per game. They allow opposing offenses 481 yards of total offense per game (115th) with 196.4 on the ground (99th) and 285 through the air (108th). Their defensive front four barely averages 260 pounds per man, and only has 2 sacks between them. Their two ends (Diaheem Watkins and Connor Boyett) are a freshman and sophomore who weigh in at 230 and 250 pounds respectively. Their two tackles – Elliot Henigan and Adam Arthur are two seniors who tip the scales at 280 and 275 pounds respectively. The Blazers have only seven sacks in eight games placing them in a tie for 113th nationally. With that lack of pressure Cougars QB Case Keenum might easily pass former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang and take the FBS lead in career passing yards as Case needs only 281 to overtake Chang's record of 17,072 yards. Don't look for the Blazers to blitz Keenum as much as Rice did last week as coach Callaway said during yesterday's weekly media press conference, "I don't think you want to blitz them because if you do, (their offense) happens quicker. I think we have to mix some things up coverage-wise and be patient. Hopefully we will have some turnovers to help us." Not likely as the Cougars have turned the ball over only eleven times on the season, with Case throwing for only three interceptions to 32 TDs.
The Blazers starting linebackers of Greg Irvin at the Sam(or strong side linebacker), Marvin Burdette at the Mike(middle) and LaManski Ware at the Will(weakside) are all very active as their stats would attest. Burdette leads them with 58 tackles followed closely by Ware's 52 and Irvin's 46. Both Burdette and Irvin have sacks with Irvin's four fumble recoveries leading the conference. Cougar running back Bryce Beall has been out for the past two games with a hamstring injury and his status for this game is up in the air. Once the Cougars soften up the Blazers back seven through the air, look for the Coogs to pound their interior line with running backs Michael Hayes and Charles Sims. Hayes leads the Coogs backs with 478 yards although Sims does average more per carry (7.5 to 5.9) on his 51 totes. All three Cougars backs have scored six TDs each.
As far as that soon to be restless Blazers secondary is concerned, strong safety Jamie Bender leads the team and is 7th in the conference in total tackles with 74. As I said two weeks ago in my preview piece versus Marshall, if your team's leading tackler is a safety the front seven aren't playing well, as is the case with UAB's defense. Corners Marquis Coleman and T.J. Ballou look solid as Coleman has started 22 consecutive games for the Blazers while Ballou has two interceptions and three fumble recoveries to his name. Of course neither will be able to handle the Cougars receiving led by Patrick Edwards. Edwards leads the nation in receiving with 1,069 yards and eleven TDs after his sick performance (318 yards on seven receptions including five TDs) last week versus Rice.
The Blazers special teams are decent as kicker Ty Long is 10-12 on field goals while punter Trey Ragland averages 40.3 yards per punt on 43 for the season. Their coverage teams are not good as they allow an average of 35 yards per kickoff return, which might be good for Cougar returner Tyron Carrier as he looks to overtake former Clemson great C.J. Spiller as both are tied with seven kickoff returns for TDs over their careers. Carrier had a beautiful 100 yard return for a TD last week versus Rice.
The keys for this game will be how well the Cougars focus on a team they should manhandle, on paper. They haven't played a road game in over a month and need to avoid getting off to slow starts as they did at North Texas, Louisiana Tech and UTEP so they don't give this downtrodden Blazer team any confidence on this, their homecoming game. Keenum spoke today about the Cougars play on the road, "It has been forever since we played on the road. We haven't played great on the road when you look at the past few games but I think we're at a different point in the season. Teams grow and change as you grow. Even from my time in high school we always started the year as a relatively inexperienced team, but by the time you got to playoffs you're a new team. A lot of guys on the team pretty much have a whole season of experience under their belt now. We've grown and matured as a team. We've gotten better at dealing with changeups as far as having to deal with playing on Saturdays and Thursdays. It's all about adapting to change and new environments."
One other interesting stat I found is that UAB is dead last at scoring TDs in the redzone. In 23 opportunities inside of the 20, the Blazers have scored only 7 TDs. Hopefully that number will not increase as I look for the Cougars to realize how much is at stake each game in coming out with a strong start and not letting up;
Final Prediction: Cougars – 56 UAB – 13
While most of the nation will be focusing on the game in Tuscaloosa between 1st ranked Alabama and 2nd ranked LSU, the Houston Cougars will be 60 miles up the road in Birmingham at Legion Field to face the UAB Blazers in their own ‘game of the century' Saturday night. Game time is set for 6pm (CST) and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.