A week after the team’s disappointing 25-point loss to No. 22 Navy at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the Memphis football team faces what might be its toughest test of the season on the road at No. 16 Houston.
Houston (9-0, 5-0 American Athletic Conference) presents a more familiar challenge than Navy did, as the Cougars play a much more traditional college football offense compared to the Midshipmen’s strange triple-option offense. However, while the Cougars’ offense will look more familiar to the Tigers. That is not to say that it will be easy to defend against.
“I will use a word I used last week — ‘more comfortable’ — because last week (against Navy) was so uncomfortable,” Tiger coach Justin Fuente said. “I would not go as far as saying it is easier. We are playing an undefeated team and you start comparing games across the country and you see what they did to Vanderbilt. Then, Vanderbilt and Florida play a 9-7 game. Then you start to understand the level Houston is playing at. It is pretty impressive.”
Despite holding only a 3-5 record, Vanderbilt has locked down opposing offenses all season long with their defense which ranks 12th in the nation in points allowed. Two weeks ago, Houston ran rampant on that defense en route to a 34-0 blowout victory. The 34 points were the most given up by the Vanderbilt defense this season.
The reason why Houston causes so many problems for its opponents is that it is almost equally as proficient on defense as it is on offense. The Cougars rank 23rd in the nation in scoring defense, yielding 18.7 points per game, and 8th in offense, scoring more than 44 points on average.
“(Houston is a) very talented football team, explosive offensively and (quarterback) Greg Ward is playing as good as anybody in America,” Fuente said. “They have good wide receivers and good running backs. It is a good, explosive team combined with a defense that continues to put pressure on quarterbacks.”
Ward sits alongside Memphis’ Paxton Lynch as one of the very best quarterbacks in all of college football. Ward has completed 70.4 percent of his passes while tossing 13 touchdowns to four interceptions this season, but what makes him most dangerous is what he can do on the ground. Ward has rushed for 829 yards and 16 touchdowns, which is the most in Division I for a quarterback.
Ward was key for the Cougars a season ago when Houston traveled to the Liberty Bowl and knocked off Memphis 28-24. Ward ran for 95 yards and a touchdown in that game, which was his first start at quarterback for the Cougars. After that game, the Tigers went 393 straight days without a loss before finally falling to Navy last week.
Houston’s ground game is further bolstered by senior running back Kenneth Farrow, who’s having a strong 2015 campaign after rushing for over 1,000 yards a season ago. Farrow is the Cougars’ leading rusher this season, totaling 857 yards and 10 touchdowns on 158 attempts.
The Tiger defense has been better against the run than against the pass this season, so they may be able to limit Farrow, but Memphis has not yet faced a run-first quarterback like Ward this season.
The Cougars and Tigers will square off Saturday night in Houston. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
Paxton Lynch and the Tigers will hope to bounce back against the Houston Cougars on Saturday.