Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
As Texas Tech cornerback Brent Nickerson watched game films of Houston earlier this week, a sense of familiarity grew as he studied how the Cougars operate their offense.
The Cougars have incorporated many of the elements from the Red Raiders thanks to their offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, who coached at Tech for eight years after playing under Mike Leach at Iowa Wesleyan.
"We know that a lot of things they do are similar to our offense,” Nickerson said. “They do a lot of empty sets and two-back stuff -- just like us. We’ve got a good feeling for what they like to do.”
And like Tech, the Cougars have developed into one of the most potent teams nationally.
Houston leads the nation in scoring, averaging 50 points per game. They also rank fourth nationally in passing (406.5 yards per game) and fifth in total offense (525 yards per game).
But the fact the Cougars are so alike the Red Raiders has provided Tech defensive tackle Richard Jones with some confidence as he prepares for Saturday’s game.
“I think it will make it a little easier because what they run is pretty similar to ours. I’ve seen it for the last four years and it’s nothing new to me,” Jones said. “But I’m sure that Coach Holgorsen knows our defense pretty well too. But just practicing against our offense will prepare us for this game because we see it a lot.”
That familiarity could cut both ways, Leach said.
“They are very similar (to Tech),” Leach said. “They do a lot of good things. They run a lot of similar plays and have a similar philosophy.”
How that will impact the ball game could help the defenses of both teams.
“If it’s easier for you, then it’s also easier for them, too,” Leach said.
That mirror image could lead to one of the most entertaining games in the nation this weekend. Both teams have high-powered offense directed by productive, talented quarterbacks.
The Cougars have jumped to No. 17 nationally – their highest ranking in 18 seasons – after beating Northwestern State and Oklahoma State to start the season.
Holgorsen’s offense is similar to Tech’s current offense except the Cougars use more players in motion. It’s more akin to Leach’s offense at Oklahoma when he was on Bob Stoops’ staff in 1999 than the current Tech derivation.
Another connection is between starting Houston quarterback Case Keenum and starting Tech quarterback Taylor Potts, who both grew up in Abilene, Texas, and are the same age. Keenum graduated from Abilene Wylie High School and Potts from Abilene High. The only time they played against each other was in a regional all-star game after graduating from high school in 2005.
Potts is coming off a strong, gritty game against Texas where he threw for 430 yards in his first career road start. His play was one of the bright spots in the Red Raiders’ 34-24 loss to the No. 2 Longhorns.
Only a week earlier, Keenum engineered an upset at No. 5 Oklahoma State, passing for a season-best 366 yards and three touchdown passes to jump into Heisman consideration.
Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said that Keenum’s skill set is remarkably similar to several Tech quarterbacks over the years.
“He’s a really good quarterback,” McNeill said. “He reminds me of the quarterbacks we’ve had here. Case is smart and accurate. He understands what needs to be done with the ball and distributing it properly. In this offense, that’s something that’s critical.”
And while McNeill might have gleaned a little insight into Holgorsen’s play-calling tendencies over the years, the talent of Houston concerns him even more.
“They are a challenge for anybody,” McNeill said. “Houston has a great set of skill-position people and a big, strong offensive line. They do a good job of blending and mixing plays. They like to stretch you vertically and horizontally and make it tough for a defense.”
So whether Holgorsen really has an advantage over the Red Raiders is debatable.
“I think it’s a draw,” McNeill said. “He knows me as well as well as I know him. I think the game will depend on which team ends up making the most plays.”