Cougars, Tigers ready to put on aerial show
The stakes weren't quite what Houston fans were dreaming of in September, but the Cougars still made a major statement with last week's 36-10 drubbing of a Louisville team that came to campus ranked third in the country and openly talking about a spot in the four-team college football playoff.
After silencing that talk with their dominant performance, the Cougars were left to ponder what-might-have been. If they had made it to last weekend undefeated, they, too, would have had playoff hopes on their minds. But losses to Navy and Southern Methodist means that the Cougars will be spending their January elsewhere.
Still, what better way to offer a state of the program address than with a dominating performance on national television.
"I'm proud of our guys," Houston coach Tom Herman said. "I'm proud of our seniors to be able to say that in their junior and senior year, they are 6-0 against top 25 teams, 3-0 against top 10 teams and 2-0 against top 3 teams.
"They are the most winning class in the history of this great university -- there's a lot to be proud of there."
The 18th-ranked Cougars (9-2, 5-2 AAC) now wind up their regular season with a trip to Memphis to take on the Tigers (7-4, 4-3). Kickoff is at noon ET Friday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis with ABC telecasting the action.
This marks the final regular-season game for the seniors Herman has been so eager to praise. While some will get looks at the next level, it's still a day likely to be fraught with emotion.
"I can't believe it," senior linebacker Steven Taylor said. "These years go by so quick. I was a redshirt freshman. I've been here five years and it's unbelievable how time flies. I'm excited. I can't wait to go out there and ball out with my boys. We're going to come hard and prepare hard as well."
Going on the road puts the game in a different light for the Cougars. Both of their losses have come away from home. Navy won 46-40 and SMU pulled a real shocker with a 38-16 romp in Dallas.
"We haven't played as well as we liked on the road at times," Herman said., "We have got to take the things that we learned the last couple of weeks in our wins and make sure they translate over to road games as well."
Memphis is coming off a big 34-7 win on the road over Cincinnati.
"To get that seventh win is big and now it sets up a big matchup for us with a great Houston team coming in," Tigers coach Mike Norvell said. "It's going to be a lot of fun here in Memphis Friday."
The game could become an offensive show. It will feature the AAC's top two passers in Houston's Greg Ward and Riley Ferguson of Memphis.
A senior, Ward has had to contend with nagging injuries since early in the season but still has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 284.1 yards a game. He has 18 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions.
Ferguson, a junior, has completed passes at a 63.4 percent rate for 265.2 yards a game and has 24 touchdown passes against only nine picks.
Houston's Linell Bonner is No. 3 in the conference in receptions per game with 76 for 841 yard and two touchdowns in 10 games. Anthony Miller of Memphis is No. 5 in receptions per game with 84 catches in 11 games and No. 3 in receiving yards per game with 1,114 yards.
Ward also has rushed for 453 yards in his 10 appearances, which is a team high. He is the second-winningest quarterback in school history, trailing only Case Keenum, but his .871 winning percentage is the best-ever at the school.
Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver is coming off a huge performance in the rout of Louisville. Going against Heisman favorite Lamar Jackson, it was Oliver who was the dominant force, finishing with two of the team's 11 sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two passes broken up. He has now had multiple tackles for loss in each of the past three games.