After snagging Tom Herman from Ohio State, the Houston Cougars went on an unprecedented tear in Herman’s two seasons marked by a 24-4 record that included victories over Florida State, Oklahoma and Louisville; the former came in a New Year’s Six Bowl. Such is the case with success, bigger schools with bigger pockets and equal stadiums lured him away, specifically the Texas Longhorns which opened the door for offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Under the guise of Applewhite and Herman, the Cougars ranked 15th nationally in passing offense (301.9 yards per game) and 21st in scoring (38 points per game) this season. In addition, they averaged 157.3 yards rushing in 2016. Herman had a seemingly-indelible effect on the Cougars so it will be interesting to see which Houston team shows up.
As for the Aztecs, Rocky Long has lead this team to what was once unfamiliar success: since 2012, San Diego State has won three Mountain West Conference Championships, including consecutive honors in 2015 and 2016. They are 10-3 entering their bowl game yet again, and there’s no doubt that this team goes as famed running back Donnel Pumphrey goes. The senior is just 107 yards from tying Ron Dayne’s record of 6,397 career rushing yards and should get some help behind fellow All-American guard, Nico Siragusa. This Cougars defense is a stalwart up front, and the Aztecs could struggle to generate movement against such an athletic group. The game could ultimately come down to the trenches.
Game details: December 17 / 3:30 pm EST / Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Houston (9-3; 5-3)
#1 Greg Ward Jr., QB
(5’11” 185 pounds; SR)
Ward has obvious questions regarding size, strength and system that will ultimately serve as his draft stock’s determinate. Regardless, Ward has proven to be an exciting and productive player with his completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns up from a year ago with nearly 100 more passing attempts. With Major Applewhite taking over the reigns, expect to see a litany of formations and pre-snap movements from the Cougars as one of the nation’s most diverse offenses. Despite Ward’s size deficiencies, he is tough and poised in the pocket, stepping up and re-setting with his eyes downfield to open up throwing lanes. He is a cerebral passer who shows an understanding of down-and-distance based on his decision making and possesses astute post-snap recognition. With a talented arm that allows him to hit tight windows with requisite zip, spin deep shots with desirable velocity and throw to the necessary spots at all levels, the Aztecs will have their hands full in both facets of the game with Ward’s unparalleled ability to beat defenders with his legs (2,375 career rushing yards and 38 scores).
#21 Chance Allen, WR
(6’3″ 215, SR)
The former Oregon Duck transferred to Houston following a freshman campaign that saw him buried on a talented depth chart, but Allen has found his calling in H-Town. After snagging 56 passes for 752 yards and six touchdowns in 2015, Allen has matched the same amount of receptions and touchdowns with 815 yards in two fewer games this year. A key component of Houston’s passing game, Allen has NFL-level size and length with the ability to get behind the defense. He is a long-strider that eats cushion off the line and possesses a nice catch radius, combining such radius with a leaping ability that propels him win at the catch point. Expect a great matchup against San Diego State’s Damontae Kazee and the rest of the Aztecs’ secondary.
#41 Steven Taylor, OLB
(6’1″ 225, SR)
After earning second team All-AAC honors in 2015, Taylor was everywhere this past season, racking up 72 tackles, 11 TFL, 8.5 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles en route to first team honors. His size may limit his role on certain NFL teams, but Taylor is adept at translating speed to power and packing power behind his pads. Taylor possesses tremendous closing burst as a twitched-up player with good lower-body flexibility, averaging one tackle for loss per game for his career (15th among all FBS players). Expect him to shoot gaps and provide effective run support against the Aztecs’ dangerous ground game.
#26 Brandon Wilson, CB
(5’11” 200, SR)
The 2016 team captain has provided the Cougars with a great talent in the secondary having racked up 42 tackles, four TFL, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. With plus size and athleticism, Wilson can play along the boundary or kick inside to the slot where he can match slot receiver’s two-way goes with fluid footwork and hips. He reportedly runs a 4.38 40 and bench presses 370 pounds, size and strength that shows up on tape when playing the stem and pinning receivers against the sideline. In 2015, he was the only FBS player who scored multiple touchdowns on offense (two rushing scores), defense (interception, fumble return) and special teams (two kickoff returns); you may also remember him as the guy who did this against Oklahoma. Wilson’s athleticism will be highly coveted come draft time.
Others to keep your eye on:
#88 Steven Dunbar, WR (6’3″ 210, JR)
#81 Tyus Bowser, Edge (6’3″ 245, SR)
San Diego State (10-3; 6-2)
#19 Donnel Pumphrey, RB
(5’9″ 180, SR)
# 56 Nico Siragusa, OG
(6’5″ 330, SR)
#54 Calvin Munson, ILB
(6’1″ 240, SR)
The Aztecs’ leading tackler, Munson finished the year with 108 to go along with his 10 TFL and 3.5 sacks; Munson also earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors in 2014 before finding a spot on the 2015 team. Munson-who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 and has spent time on the Aztecs’ baseball team-is a stalwart against the run, a downhill player who utilizes his play recognition and instincts to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield. A disruptive force in the front seven, expect the Cougars to challenge Munson’s liabilities in coverage once he gives them fits in the run game.
#23 Damontae Kazee, CB
(5’11” 190, SR)
2015’s Mountain West Defense Player of the Year was also a second team All-American, becoming the first Aztec player to be named the MW Defensive Player of the Year since Kirk Morrison won it in back-to-back seasons in 2003-04. Kazee’s light feet and loose hips allow for smooth change of direction and turn-and-run ability, a play-making ball-hawk who has excelled in their zone scheme with 17 career interceptions; he does an impeccable job of playing the ball with the requisite body control and concentration while matching receiver’s routes with desirable anticipation.
Others to keep you eye on:
#58 Alex Barrett, DL (6’3″ 255, SR)
#20 Rashaad Penny, RB (5’11” 220, JR)