2007 Houston Cougars

Posted Dec 31, 2007

2007 Houston Cougars Season, Game Recaps, Scores and Reviews

2007 Houston Cougars

Recap: After rebounding admirably from the graduation of franchise QB Kevin Kolb, the Cougars must do it again after the departure to Baylor of head coach Art Briles, the architect of the program's recent revival.  While Houston failed to repeat as Conference USA champs, and lost a bowl game for the eighth straight time, it did win eight games and tie Tulsa atop the Western Division in somewhat of a transition season.  When the Cougars were having problems last year, the defense was often the culprit, giving up an average of 42 points a game in their four regular season losses.       

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Anthony Alridge

Defensive Player of the Year: DE Phillip Hunt

Biggest Surprise: QB Case Keenum.  Faced with the unenviable task of succeeding Kolb, the freshman did an admirable job, flashing a live arm and good mobility, while providing hope for the future.  While sharing time with tag-team partner Blake Joseph, Keenum tossed 14 touchdowns passes and scrambled for nine more.

Biggest Disappointment: With the West up for grabs on Nov. 10, Houston played its worst game of the Briles era, getting blitzed by Tulsa, 56-7.  Despite boasting two of the league's most explosive players, RB Anthony Alridge and WR Donnie Avery, the Cougars were never able to break through against a very suspect Hurricane defense.

Looking Ahead: Former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin takes the reigns of the program, promising to build on the success of the past few seasons.  Although the new head coach will have weapons on offense, replacing the speed and big-play ability of Alridge and Avery will be next to impossible.

- 2007 Houston Preview
2006 Houston Season

2007 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 7-5
2007 Results:

Sept. 1 at Oregon L 48-27
Sept. 15
at Tulane W 34-10
Sept. 22 Colorado St W 35-24
Sept. 29
East Carolina L 37-35
Oct. 6 at Alabama L 30-24
Oct. 13
Rice W 56-48
Oct. 20 at UAB W 49-10
Oct. 27 at UTEP W 34-31
Nov. 4
SMU W 38-28
Nov. 10 at Tulsa L 56-7
Nov. 17
Marshall W 35-28
Nov. 24 Texas South. W 59-6
Texas Bowl
Dec. 28 TCU L 20-13

Dec. 28
2007 Texas Bowl
TCU 20 ... Houston 13

TCU held a seemingly comfortable 20-10 lead with two minutes to play, but Houston made it interesting with a 32-yard field goal, and after forcing a quick three-and-out, took the ball from its two and worked its way down to the TCU 19 with one second to play. On the final shot, TCU's Chase Ortiz blew into the backfield and hit Cougar QB Case Keenum to end it. The Horned Frogs stuffed the Cougar running game allowing just 32 net yards helped by five sacks, while the offense got short touchdown runs from Andy Dalton and Justin Watts along with two Chris Manfredini field goals. Houston started off the scoring with Andre Kohn catching a 67-yard scoring pass, but never got back into the end zone.
Offensive Player of the Game: TCU QB Andy Dalton completed 21 of 30 passes for 294 yards with an interception, and ran 11 times for 17 yards and a score
Defensive Player of the Game:
Houston SS Rocky Schwartz made 16 tackles and two tackles for loss
Stat Leaders: TCU - Passing: Andy Dalton, 21-30, 249 yds, 1 INT
Rushing: Justin Watts, 12-46, 1 TD. Receiving: Ervin Dickerson, 3-57
Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 23-38, 335 yds, 1 TD
Anthony Alridge, 15-29. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 10-120

Thoughts & Notes ... TCU's defense never let Houston star RB Anthony Alridge get going. The gameplan was all about getting bodies around him, and it worked as he only gained 29 yards on 15 carries with 22 coming on one play. .... TCU's pass rush got consistent pressure on Case Keenum, but it didn't seem to matter too much. Keenum kept getting up to bomb away for more, keeping his cool time and again. For the most part, the tackles did a decent job against the Horned Frog pass rushing tandem of Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake, except for Ortiz's sack on the final play. ... TCU got hit with 11 penalties to Houston's six. ... Houston had its chance before the final play with two throws into the end zone, but after Donnie Avery picked apart the TCU defense, he didn't get an honest shot to make a play when the Cougars got close.

Nov. 24
Houston 59 ... Texas Southern 6
Houston scored on its first seven possessions on the way to a 47-0 halftime lead kicked off with a 52-yard Anthony Alridge touchdown run on the third play from the game and punctuated by a 35-yard Alridge dash midway through the second quarter. The Cougars got up 59-0 before TSU finally got on the board in the fourth quarter on a 49-yard William Osborne touchdown catch. Houston outgained TSU 664 yards to 179.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran 11 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 11 yards.
Stat Leaders: Texas Southern - Passing: Cornelius Harmon, 6-16, 72 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Jeff Bell, 6-27. Receiving: Michael Anderson, 3-17
Houston - Passing: Blake Joseph, 11-14, 169 yds
Anthony Alridge, 11-157, 2 TD. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 6-143, 1 TD
Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... Nothing like a nice light scrimmage against a Texas Southern to close out a season. While this might not have been the Conference USA championship campaign of last year, winning eight games and going off to the Texas Bowl is still a nice accomplishment. The program missed Kevin Kolb, but as the win this week showed, it'll miss Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery even more next year.

Nov. 17
Houston 35 ... Marshall 28
Anthony Alridge scored on a three-yard run and took a pass 26 yards for a score, and Case Keenum ran for a touchdown and threw two touchdown passes including a 62-yard play to Mark Hafner for a touchdown to stay two steps ahead of the Herd. Marshall made it close late on a one-yard Kelvin Turner run, but the onside kick failed and the Cougars were able to run out the clock. The Herd got touchdown runs from Darius Marshall and Chubb Small, and a 32-yard scoring grab from Emmanuel Spann.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran 25 times for 103 yards and a touchdown, and caught five passes for 44 yards and a score
Stat Leaders: Marshall - Passing: Bernard Morris, 20-32, 260 yds, 1 TD
Rushing: Darius Marshall, 12-66, 1 TD. Receiving: E.J. Wynn, 6-66
Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 24-32, 298 yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Anthony Alridge, 25-103, 1 TD. Receiving: Mark Hafner, 6-128, 1 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... The Cougars got back on track after the laying an egg against Tulsa, but the defense struggled a bit too much with a lousy Marshall offense. Now that they've got the second seed in the West and are assured a decent bowl slot, it's time to flex a little muscle and blow away Texas Southern. As long as Case Keenum is efficient and doesn't make mistakes, there shouldn't be any problems.

Nov. 10
Tulsa 56 ... Houston 7
Tulsa got out to a 35-0 halftime lead on four of Paul Smith's five touchdown passes, with strikes from 53 and 32 yards out to Brennan Marion, and a one-yard Smith run. The Golden Hurricane kept on rolling with a 56-0 lead late into the fourth with touchdown runs from Tarrion Adams and Jamad Williams in the second half before Houston finally got on the board with a five-yard Terrance Ganaway run with 2:25 to play. The Cougars turned the ball over five times and were outgained 515 yards to 324. Tulsa's Chris Chamberlain made 20 tackles.
Player of the game: Tulsa QB Paul Smith completed 15 of 28 passes for 313 yards and five touchdowns, and he ran seven times for 32 yards and a score
Stat Leaders: Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 12-15, 81 yds, 1 INT
Rushing: Terrance Ganaway, 8-39, 1 TD. Receiving: Mark Hafner, 6-47
Tulsa - Passing: Paul Smith, 15-28, 313 yds, 5 TD
Jamad Williams, 16-56, 1 TD. Receiving: Charles Clay, 5-97, 1 TD
Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... There's still a chance to pull out the West title with a win over Marshall and a Tulsa loss to Rice, but it might take a little while to get over the thumping from the Golden Hurricane. The Cougars didn't show up, getting torched from the word go, committing 12 penalties and turning it over five times. For the second straight week the secondary got lit up, but unlike the win over SMU, the offense didn't have an answer. As bad as this might have been, with two more wins, a bowl game will be assured, and there's still a shot at a nine win season.

Nov. 4
Houston 38 ... SMU 28
Houston cranked out 554 yards of total offense, mostly thanks to the running game, overcoming an early 14-7 deficit to go on a 24-point second quarter run to take control of the game, at least for a half. Anthony Alridge ran for a two-yard score, and 36-yard touchdown, and three a 24-yard touchdown pass to Chaz Rodriguez, but the Cougars had to hold on as Justin Willis, who started off the scoring with a four-yard touchdown run, threw three touchdown passes including a 51-yarder and a 21-yarder to Zack Sledge in the third quarter to pull within three. Donnie Avery put it a away for the Cougars on a seven-yard scoring grab early in the fourth.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran 31 times for 154 yards and two touchdown and threw a pass for a 24-yard score.
Stat Leaders: SMU - Passing: Justin Willis, 19-32, 351 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Justin Willis, 16-51, 1 TD. Receiving: Emmanuel Sanders, 5-76
Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 19-27, 264 yds, 2 TD
Anthony Alridge, 31-154, 2 TD. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 10-116, 1 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... The defense had way to many problems against Justin Willis and the SMU passing game, allowing a certain blowout to get way too close in the second half. But when needed, the defense came through, but more importantly, the offense kept the chains moving connecting on 12 of 19 third down chances and hanging on to the ball for 21:01 in the second half. Now bowl eligible and almost certain to at least get a 13th game, the offense has to get ready for a shootout against Tulsa to win the West.

Oct. 27
Houston 34 ... UTEP 31
Houston cranked up 520 yards of total offense, but needed a one-yard Terance Ganaway touchdown run to finally pull ahead in the fourth quarter and two defensive stops to finally get the win. UTEP took a 17-7 first half lead on a nine-yard Jamar Hunt touchdown catch and a 34-yard Joe West scoring grab, but the Cougars bounced back with two T.J. Lawrence field goals and a 20-yard Case Keenum touchdown run. Keenum gave Houston the lead in the fourth quarter on a five-yard pass to Perry McDaniel, but UTEP would fight back with Trevor Vittatoe's third touchdown pass of the game on a 35-yard throw to Jeff Moturi. That would be it for the Miner offense. UTEP started off the scoring with a 57-yard Jose Martinez field goal.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran 27 times for 204 yards, and caught six passes for 43 yards
Stat Leaders: Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 13-20, 116 yds, 1 TD
Rushing: Anthony Alridge, 27-204. Receiving: Anthony Alridge, 6-43
UTEP - Passing: Trevor Vittatoe, 8-23, 134 yds, 3 TD
Marcus Thomas, 28-178. Receiving: Jeff Moturi, 4-94, 2 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... The offense is humming on all cylinders, getting 540 yards against UAB and 520 against UTEP in the last two weeks. This is looking like a Conference USA favorite, but the defense has to do a better job of slowing down the pass if it's going to get by Tulsa in a few weeks and clinch the West. With C-USA lightweights SMU and Marshall to deal with, the West is over after beating the Miners.

Oct. 20
Houston 49 ... UAB 10
Houston rolled for 540 yards of total offense as it overcame a 3-0 deficit to crank out 28 straight first half points on short touchdown runs from Anthony Alridge, Case Keenum and Terrance Ganaway before the Blazers got into the end zone on a four-yard Frantrell Forrest catch. The Cougar defense came up with four interceptions, while the offense cranked out 33 first downs and held on to the ball for 39:28.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran 17 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns, and caught four passes for 24 yards
Stat Leaders: Houston - Passing: Blake Joseph, 10-17, 105 yds, 1 TD
Rushing: Anthony Alridge, 17-111, 2 TD. Receiving: Mark Hafner, 5-66, 1 TD
UAB - Passing: Sam Hunt, 12-34, 198 yds, 1 TD, 4 INT
Brandon Thornton, 3-16. Receiving: Frantrell Forrest, 5-96, 1 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... The Cougars picked a great time to come up with its best game of the year, rolling over UAB without a problem. The defense forced turnovers, Anthony Alridge and the running game did whatever it wanted to, and it was an easy road win going into the showdown against UTEP. As long as the offense is this effective, this is the favorite to repeat as C-USA champions. The O is coming into its own.

Oct. 13
Houston 56 ... Rice 48
Houston rolled up 748 yards of total offense and got a record-setting day from Donnie Avery, who caught 13 passes for 346 yards and scores from 77 and 67 yards out as part of a wild 28-point first quarter. Anthony Alridge added a seven-yard touchdown run, but he'd make his biggest impact in the second half with scoring runs from eight, 33 and 50 yards out to overcome a Rice midgame 26-point run. The Cougars turned it over five times, and the Owls took advantage with short scoring drives from five, 14, and 31 yards out to take a 40-28 lead, and then Houston's offense caught fire.
Player of the game: Houston WR Donnie Avery caught 13 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns, and RB Anthony Alridge ran 24 times for 205 yards and four scores.
Stat Leaders: Rice - Passing: Chase Clement, 24-44, 355 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Chase Clement, 11-36. Receiving: Jarett Dillard, 7-133, 1 TD
Houston - Passing: Blake Joseph, 11-18, 318 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Anthony Alridge, 24-205, 4 TD. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 13-346, 2 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... Talk about explosion, Anthony Alridge continues to make a case for All-America honors with yet another breathtaking performance, but it was Donnie Avery who stole the show against Rice with the big plays early to set the tone for the game. Unfortunately, turnovers and defensive problems coming up with a first half stop made it closer than it should've been but the Cougars got the win, and now have to go on the road to deal with UAB and UTEP. Expect more fireworks.

Oct. 6
Alabama 30 ... Houston 24
Alabama appeared to be cruising to an easy win after getting out a 23-0 first quarter lead on two 23-yard John Parker Wilson touchdown passes and a one-yard Wilson run, but then things got interesting. Houston's Donnie Avery took a pass 68 yards for a touchdown just before halftime, but the Tide seemed to have things well in hand after a Glen Coffee four-yard touchdown run made it 30-10 going into the fourth. A Case Keenum two-yard touchdown run and a 30-yard Anthony Alridge score pulled the Cougars to within six, and they had the ball with a chance to win the game late. On fourth and goal deep in Tide territory, Simeon Castille picked off a pass in the end zone to save the Homecoming win.
Player of the game: Alabama RB Glen Coffee ran 30 times for 121 yards and a touchdown and caught six passes for 30 yards
Stat Leaders: Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 11-17, 132 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Rushing: Anthony Alridge, 17-100. Receiving: Anthony Alridge, 7-94, 1 TD
Alabama - Passing: John Parker Wilson, 15-27, 157 yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Glen Coffee, 30-121, 1 TD. Receiving: Glen Coffee, 6-30
Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... For the second straight week, Houston lost late when it had chances to win. The 2-3 record could easily be 4-1, but that's what happens when it takes a while to get going. This is a big-play team that can explode from anywhere on the field, and was able to work its way into the game against Alabama, but it's going to have to learn how to play a full sixty minutes against the better teams. You can't spot 23 to the Tide in the first quarter and expect to win.

Sept. 29
East Carolina 37 ... Houston 35
Down two, Houston had two late chances to win, but T.J. Lawrence missed a 37-yard field goal with just under two minutes to play, and missed from 38 with three seconds left. ECU got a huge day from Chris Johnson, who ran for a 14-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 43-yard dash in the third. Houston stayed in it with the home run, starting off the scoring with a 33-yard Donnie Avery touchdown catch, his first of two touchdown grabs, and answering a late ECU field goal with a 100-yard Donnie Avery kickoff return for a score. ECU's C.J. Wilson came up with 2.5 sacks, and Quentin Cotton made 14 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Player of the game: East Carolina RB Chris Johnson ran 24 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns, and caught four passes for 24 yards
Stat Leaders: East Carolina - Passing: Rob Kass, 6-12, 110 yds, 1 TD
Rushing: Chris Johnson, 24-147, 2 TD. Receiving: Chris Johnson, 4-24
Houston - Passing: Blake Joseph, 24-29, 250 yds, 2 TD
Anthony Alridge, 21-89, 1 TD. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 9-189, 2 TD

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... Houston will have to quickly get past the heartbreaking loss to East Carolina, or the Alabama game won't be pretty. There was tremendous explosion, Donnie Avery and Anthony Alridge did what they do, but the defense couldn't handle the ECU running game, and the kicking game had issues with two late misses and a block. On the plus side, Blake Joseph stepped in for Case Keenum and was fantastic, completing 24 of his 29 passes.

Sept. 22
Houston 35 ... Colorado State 24
In a tale of two halves, Colorado State got up 17-3 on two Caleb Hanie touchdown passes and a 40-yard Jason Smith field goal. And then Case Keenum took over for Houston, as he threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to L.J. Castille to open the second half, and a 27-yarder to Perry McDaniel late in the third quarter. A second Smith field goal broke a 24-24 tie, but Keenum put it away with two short touchdown runs in the final 6:18. CSU was held to just 115 rushing yards.
Player of the game: Houston QB Case Keenum threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-22 passing, and ran 12 times for 57 yards and two touchdowns.
Stat Leaders: Colorado State - Passing: Caleb Hanie, 16-26, 227 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Rushing: Kyle Bell, 23-73. Receiving: Luke Roberts, 6-113, 1 TD
Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 18-22, 197 yds, 2 TDs
Anthony Alridge, 15-62. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 7-76

Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... Houston's star back, Anthony Alridge was held in check by Colorado State, but the Cougar defense did its part by stuffing Ram star Kyle Bell for 73 yards on 23 carries. The real find was the play of Case Keenum, who was deadly accurate in place of Blake Joseph. Based on this week, Keenum deserves more playing time with his dual-threat capabilities coming through when the ground game was stuck. That Houston can put up 35 points without Alridge being a major factor shows how strong the team is playing.

Sept. 15
Houston 34 ... Tulane 10
Houston had few problems blowing past Tulane, getting out to a 24-0 halftime lead on two Blake Joseph touchdown passes and a four-yard Anthony Alridge touchdown run. Alridge made it a laugher early in the third, taking a pass 49 yards for a touchdown and a 31-0 lead before the Green Wave finally got on the board with a 28-yard field goal. Houston kept Tulane out of the end zone until the final minute when Chris Dunn caught a six-yard touchdown pass.
Player of the game: Houston RB Anthony Alridge ran for 87 and a touchdown on 18 carries, and caught two passes for 49 yards and another score..
Stat Leaders: Houston - Passing: Case Keenum, 13-21, 185 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Rushing: Anthony Alridge, 18-87, 1 TD. Receiving: Donnie Avery, 7-103
Tulane - Passing: Scott Elliott, 9-23, 116 yds, 2 INTs
Matt Forte, 17-85.  Receiving: Casey Robottom, 4-115
Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... With near perfect offensive balance and a little explosion mixed in from Anthony Alridge, Houston had few problems with Tulane. The Cougars are still good enough to blow past the mediocre Conference USA teams, and against the Green Wave, the defense did its job, especially against the run. There were a few too many mistakes, with three turnovers, and the quarterback situation remains unsettled, but considering the team had two weeks off, it played great out of the gate. It'll have to do the same against a balanced and tough Colorado State team this week.

Sept. 1
Oregon 48 ... Houston 27
Dennis Dixon had a huge day for the Ducks with 141 rushing yards, highlighted by an 80-yard scoring dash to put the game away late in the third quarter, and threw two touchdown passes. Houston hung around for most of the game, helped by two huge plays from Anthony Alridge with a 60-yard touchdown run and an 86-yard touchdown catch, but Dixon would prove to be too much, with his two scoring passes coming within a minute of each other in the third quarter as part of a wild sequence. Dixon connected with Brian Paysinger for a 24-yard score, and then converted a blocked punt into a six-yard scoring pass to to Jaison Williams, and then on the next play from scrimmage, Alridge scored on his 86-yarder.
Player of the game ... Oregon QB Dennis Dixon went 9-of-15 for 134 yards and two touchdowns, and ran 15 times for 141 yards and a score..
Stat Leaders: Houston- Passing: Case Keenum, 14-27, 179 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Anthony Alridge, 22-205, 1 TD  Receiving: Donnie Avery, 6-66
Oregon - Passing: Dennis Dixon, 9-15, 134 yds, 2 TDs
Rushing: Dennis Dixon, 15-141, 1 TD  Receiving: Brian Paysinger, 4-63, 1 TD
Whoopty doo. What does it all mean, Basil? ... Yeah, the run defense had problems with Dennis Dixon and Oregon, but the Cougar offense had a bolt of lightning of its own in Anthony Alridge, who looked every bit the part of Conference USA's most dangerous player. He needs to have the ball in his hands 25 times a game, and as long as there's a little help around him, he'll win a few games by himself. The passing attack might not have been great, but several receivers were involved. The penalties have to stop. 11 are too many.

Sept. 1 – at Oregon
Offense: As usual, Oregon gobbled up a ton of yards in 2006, but lacked efficiency most of the year and imploded under the weight of its turnovers in the second half of the season.  So when offensive coordinator Gary Crowton left for LSU, Mike Bellotti turned to New Hampshire's Chip Kelly to get the offense back on course.  A spread offense guru, Kelly will have a few new bells and whistles in his toolbox, including greater use of the no-huddle and increased reliance on superstar back Jonathan Stewart.  The key for the offense, and probably the entire team, will be the development of senior quarterback Dennis Dixon, who became the poster boy for the Ducks' collapse late last year.  He'll get adequate protection from Max Unger and the boys up front, but needs more consistency from a receiving corps that misplayed too many balls in 2006. 
Defense: Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti isn't shy about bringing pressure with his wave of good athletes, and now has a couple of quality corners to marginalize the risk of selling out.  Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond, Freshman All-Americans in 2006, join standout rover Patrick Chung to give the Ducks their feistiest secondary in years.  The front seven, however, is far less stable.  After finishing ninth in the Pac-10 in run defense, Oregon needs to shore up the middle of its defense and develop an end or two that can consistently create pressure.  Redshirt freshman Brandon Bair is one possibility that has the staff cautiously excited about the defensive end spot.  In a league filled with strong-armed hurlers, that promising secondary will pay the price if opposing passers are given too much time to throw.

Sept. 15 – at Tulane
Offense: New head coach Bob Toledo would like to get vertical get the passing game moving, but it's not going to happen at the expense of the ground attack. With a good back in Matt Forte to work with, the Green Wave will try to run the ball to create some semblance of balance, but the offensive line might not be in place to do it. Scott Elliott is the odds-on favorite to win the starting quarterback job in a four-man race, and he has some decent young receivers to work with.
Defense: Tulane hasn't played consistent defense in a few years, and it needs to count on experience, especially up front, to change things around. Eight starters return led by senior tackles Frank Morton and Avery Williams. The secondary needs to be far better after allowing over 250 passing yards a game, but that could be a bit of an issue with two new starting corners being broken in. The new coaching staff will use a variety of formations and schemes to try to get more production, and while the overall defense should be better, there will still be times when it'll get bombed on.

Sept. 22 - Colorado State
Offense: There's no reason for the Ram offense to be far, far better. Nine starters are back, led by the return of power back Kyle Bell from a knee injury to save a ground game that was among the worst in America. Caleb Hanie is a veteran passer with one of the Mountain West's best receiving corps at his disposal. It all comes down to a line that gets the interior back, but has to find consistent tackles who can protect Hanie. Keeping Bell healthy is also vital. There was no rushing production two years ago when he wasn't on, and there was nothing happening last year with him on the sidelines.
A veteran defense returns with everyone back except the two outside linebackers. With all the experience, there has to be more pressure in the backfield and more big plays against the pass after coming up with just 27 sacks and seven interceptions. There aren't any superstars, but there are several very good players who know what they're doing. Undersized tackle Blake Smith might move to end to provide the pass rusher the team desperately needs, and the secondary should benefit.

Sept. 29 - East Carolina
Offense: Skip Holtz likes to spread the field out and turn his quarterback loose, but with the battery of James Pinkney and Aundrae Allison gone, the Pirates will put more emphasis on the ground game.  That means extra carries this year for versatile senior Chris Johnson and his young understudies, Dominique Lindsay and Norman Whitley.  While strong-armed sophomore Rob Kass will replace Pinkney behind center, an adequate replacement for Allison will be much tougher to find.  Look for the quarterback to utilize a group of tight ends that has the potential to be as good as any in Conference USA.  For ECU to improve on last season's weak offensive output, the veteran line needs to give Kass an extra second or two in the pocket and create more daylight for the backs.        
Defense: If the Pirate defensive line doesn't outright dominate at times this season, heads will roll at the end of the year.  There's way too much talent and depth on this unit for it not to make a quantum leap from 2006.  Junior end Marcus Hands, in particular, has the size and quickness to be special after underachieving last fall.  Penetration up front figures to help a secondary that's easily the weak link of this defense.  Three starters, including both corners, need to be replaced from a group that was one of the underrated team strengths for the past two seasons.

Oct. 6 – at Alabama
Offense: Major Applewhite takes over as offensive coordinator and will play around with several different formations and ideas, while trying to stick with Nick Saban's run-first philosophy. He'll incorporate a little bit of spread and four-wide sets. There's one problem; Bama might not have the backs to run well on a consistent basis. The strength is in the passing game with the great 1-2 receiving tandem of D.J. Hall and Keith Brown working with rising passer John Parker Wilson. The line welcomes back five starters led by soon to be All-Everything tackle Andre Smith.
Defense: Former Florida State defensive coordinator Kevin Steele came in and switched things up to a 3-4 in an attempt to jump-start a woeful pass rush by getting more production from the outside linebackers, led by a hybrid position of defensive lineman and linebacker, manned by Keith Saunders. Wallace Gilberry and Bobby Greenwood look the part of top ends, and now they have to start producing. The biggest problem is tackle, where former backup center Brian Motley, who looked great this spring, has to be an anchor for everything to work right. The back eight should be excellent, led by all-star corner Simeon Castille.

Oct. 13 - Rice
Offense: Todd Graham and his staff are gone, but the spread attack is alive and well at Rice, good news for an offense that returns its starting quarterback and All-American wide receiver.  Although Chase Clement to Jarett Dillard will be a familiar phrase this fall, the Owls are also developing a bunch of good-looking, young pass-catchers that are ready to contribute.  The quest for offensive balance, however, won't be so easy now that underappreciated running back Quinton Smith has exhausted his eligibility.  Last year was a painful transition for the offensive line, but with four starters back and a full year in the system, there are no excuses for not being much better in pass protection.   
Defense: In an attempt to bolster a run defense that allowed more than 300 yards to five straight opponents in 2006, Rice is shifting from the 3-3-5 to the 4-2-5.  The move puts another big body in the box, but also puts an enormous burden on a line that lost three of last year's best linemen to graduation.  The new scheme encourages constant pressure from a back seven that boasts the young athletes, such as junior linebacker Brian Raines and sophomore safety Andrew Sendejo, to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks.  Lost in last year's statistically awful season was the fact that the opportunistic Owls paced Conference USA in turnovers and sacks.

Oct. 20 – at UAB
Offense: From the staff and the system to the personnel, the offense will be getting a complete facelift in 2007.  Nothing will look the same which isn't such a bad thing considering how poorly the unit executed last season.  New coordinator Kim Helton is installing a pro-style attack that sprinkles in some no-huddle and option calls, but realizes he'll have to tailor the first-year playbook to the talent he inherits.  All eyes in August will be on the continuing quarterback battle between senior Sam Hunt and sophomore Joseph Webb, a potential savior once he gets up to speed.  Whether or not the offense climbs out of the Conference USA cellar will depend heavily on the maturation of a rebuilt line that's replacing four senior starters. 
Defense: While the back seven of the defense figures to be a strength in 2007, you might not know it unless the defensive line can effectively replace three key starters from last year.  Senior end Brandon Jeffries will be productive, but after him, UAB is feverishly searching for answers to prevent opposing passers from having all day to throw.  Junior college transfer Antonio Forbes is being counted on to deliver right out of the gate at tackle.  The linebackers have a budding star in junior Joe Henderson and senior free safety Will Dunbar is one of just a handful of Blazer defenders with all-league potential.

Oct. 27 – at UTEP
Offense: The offense continued to be one-sided finishing fifth in the nation in passing and 116th in rushing, and now things will make a shift back the other way, although not necessarily for the positive. A battle for the quarterback job will continue until the fall, but the running game should be set with Marcus Thomas ready to break out as on of Conference USA's best backs. However, he needs room to move behind a line that has to be night-and-day better than last year when it struggled to pound away.
The Miners melted down over the second half of last season and needs to be far more productive with nine starters returning. Don't expect miracles, but unlike previous years, the D should be better as the season goes on. The defense was miserable last season despite getting a consistent pass rush from the front seven. Now the whole line needs to find replacements while the linebacking corps has to hope for Jeremy Jones to be healthy after a knee injury. The secondary should be a strength after a rough year with safeties Quintin Demps and Braxton Amy potential all-stars, while Josh Ferguson is a solid corner.

Nov. 4 - SMU
Offense: In sophomore Justin Willis, SMU has a legitimate franchise quarterback with the physical tools to move an offense and the intangibles to lead a program to victories and eventually bowl games.  He'll be growing alongside classmate Emmanuel Sanders, who ignited a mediocre receiving corps last year with 46 catches and nine touchdown receptions.  Junior back DeMyron Martin is eyeing the kind of rebound year that'll refocus his career while giving more balance to the offense.  He'll have the luxury of running behind a seasoned line that returns four starters.  If, as expected, the Mustangs are playing in shootouts this year, they've now got the offensive weapons to keep pace.
Defense: The Mustangs will spend the better part of the year trying to replace three starters from the 2006 defensive line, including standouts Justin Rogers and Adrian Haywood.  If they can solve that complex riddle, look out.  The back seven, led by Butkus Award candidate Reggie Carrington, is very fast and very capable of spurring an improvement from last year's middling results.  The more likely scenario has the line struggling to create a consistent push and the secondary getting burned by opposing hurlers with way too much time to find their targets.

Nov. 10 – at Tulsa
Offense: Can Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense really work at this level … take two.  All the buzz about Malzahn's fancy playbook fizzled in Fayetteville last year, but unlike at Arkansas, Tulsa coach Tood Graham is on board and prepared to see all of the offense's bell and whistles.  The system aims to control the tempo, physically and mentally wear out opponents, and sort of run a two-minute offense for four quarters.  Senior quarterback Paul Smith is liable to go berserk running this offense, but a makeshift offensive line and a whole new set of receivers will be two major stumbling blocks.  When the Hurricane runs the ball, it'll turn to senior Courtney Tennial and junior Tarrion Adams, arguably the best running duo in Conference USA.   
Defense: Head coach Todd Graham brings the 3-3-5 and a very aggressive style back to Tulsa, where he led the defense from 2003-2005.  The fact that he coached and recruited many of this year's players should make for a smoother-than-expected transition.  Graham will showcase a swarming unit that brings turnovers back to Tulsa.  In his final season as the defensive coordinator, the Hurricane had 36 takeaways.  Without him last year? 14.  The strength is at linebacker, which features three senior starters and Nelson Coleman, one of the nation's best middle linebackers you've never seen play.  With so much over pursuing going on in 2007, a retooled secondary could give up as many big plays this year as it has in the last two combined.

Nov. 17 - Marshall
Offense: Not since Byron Leftwich graduated has Marshall been Marshall on offense.  That should begin to change this fall provided erratic senior quarterback Bernard Morris can make the most of a receiving corps that's brimming with young game-breakers.  All-conference back Ahmad Bradshaw, a 1,500-yard rusher in 2006, left early for the NFL, leaving Chubb Small to shoulder the load.  If he can't handle the promotion, look for one of three blue-chip freshmen to rise up and accept an expanded role.  While the offensive line has pending issues at tackle, Doug Legursky is a beast at center that could parlay big efforts early versus Miami and West Virginia into post-season awards.
Defense: Disgusted with the play of last year's defense, head coach Mark Snyder changed course, hiring veteran Steve Dunlap as the coordinator.  While last year's team sat back, and often paid for the conservative approach, the 2007 edition will attack wherever and whenever it makes sense.  The chief attacker will be junior end Albert McClellan, a sack machine that'll be in the mix for just about every individual award given to defensive players.  At linebacker, junior Josh Johnson is good enough to consider early entry into the 2008 NFL Draft once the season concludes.  Dunlap's biggest concerns in his first season on the job surround a pedestrian group of tackles and a beatable secondary that allowed way too many long gainers last season.

Nov. 24 – Texas Southern



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