In an offseason filled with schools getting bad news from the NCAA, Houston stood out as the contrarian.
First came word that quarterback Case Keenum had been granted a sixth year of eligibility and next the Cougars learned that the NCAA had reinstated running back Charles Sims’ eligibility.
It all adds up to a Cougars offense that has all the weapons it needs to maintain the prolific pace it has set over the last several seasons and UCLA will be the first to face it when the teams meet Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Pacific. The game will be televised by FSN.
Keenum, in the hunt to break NCAA passing records for career yards and touchdowns, tore his ACL in Week 3 against UCLA last season and the NCAA deemed him worthy of resuming his chase. He is 3,487 yards shy of Timmy Chang’s career passing record (17,072) and needs 28 touchdown passes to surpass Graham Harrell’s record of 134.
And while it might seem as if 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns are a lot, consider that Keenum passed for more than 5,000 yards in 2008 and 2009 and had 44 touchdowns in each of those seasons. He benefits from Houston’s pass-happy spread offense that, even in Keenum’s absence most of last season, ranked fifth in the nation in passing at 327.25 yards per game.
Keenum will no longer have James Cleveland, who torched UCLA for 144 yards receiving last season, but top target Patrick Edwards, a 1,000-yard receiver in each of the last two seasons is back, as is speedster Tyron Carrier, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2008 and 2009.
The Cougars also have a deeper running attack with the return of Sims, the 2009 Conference USA freshman of the year who sat out last season because of ineligibility. He joins leading returning rusher Bryce Beall, who had 870 yards rushing last season, and Michael Hayes, the shifty counterpart who had 629 yards rushing last season.
Hayes and Sims are also good receivers and will often split out wide in an empty backfield set, putting even more of a strain on UCLA’s defensive secondary, especially considering the Bruins are a bit thin at cornerback.
But while Houston’s skill players are dangerous, the Cougars' offensive line is suspect. The Cougars return only two offensive linemen and UCLA’s front seven -- led by defensive end Datone Jones -- will try to exploit that weakness and disrupt the offensive attack.
Houston also proved vulnerable on defense last season, especially against the run. The Cougars gave up 208.75 yards per game on the ground to rank No. 114 in the nation and last year when the teams met, UCLA came into the game struggling on offense, but overmatched the Cougars' defense and pounded out 266 yards rushing in a 31-13 victory. Johnathan Franklin had 158 yards and three touchdowns.
UCLA was able to control the clock and keep Houston’s potent offense off the field, bolting to a 31-3 lead after three quarters before Houston rallied in the fourth quarter against some of UCLA’s reserves. Houston, which runs a 3-4 defense, has five returning starters among its defensive front seven with linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw leading the charge of experience, but the Cougars are thin on the defensive line and have very little in terms of experience in the secondary.