HUNTINGTON - Even with its star quarterback long gone, Houston's offense will see your 90 snaps a game and raise it.OK, that's a small exaggeration, as the Cougars' 82 plays per game are a bit short of Marshall's 88.1. Still, Marshall defensive coaches are braced for exactly the same hyper-tempo offense when the Cougars invade Joan C. Edwards Stadium.Kickoff is noon Saturday, with the game available to Comcast subscribers in Cabell County and pockets of Putnam County.To illustrate how fast the Cougars can run their offense, consider their 115 snaps in a 56-49 loss Sept. 8 to Louisiana Tech. Being behind the entire game spiked the sense of urgency, but the numbers are still goofy - the Cougars gained 693 total yards and sophomore David Piland threw for 580 yards on 53-of-77 passing.It's much the same offense the Cougars used to roll over Marshall 63-28 last year, when Case Keenum was a sixth-year senior throwing to a stable of speedy, veteran receivers. Houston rolled up 621 total yards."They are the same offense," said MU defensive coordinator Chris Rippon. "They're the same offense that's making the transition with new people. The triggerman couldn't have been any better than the guy last year for that system, been through it six years, those receivers, four years and, I thought, the best back in the conference [Charles Sims]. He's legit."He came back, and he's hurt."Sims, who suffered an ankle injury Nov. 3 against East Carolina, remained day-to-day as of Wednesday afternoon. He leads Conference USA in average rushing yards per game, 106.8.Since Sims' injury, the Cougars have struggled. They abandoned the run in the ECU game, gaining just 28 yards on 11 attempts. Last week, Tulsa held them to 78 yards rushing and 262 overall in a 41-7 rout.
But there have been other potholes, and they started from the opening game. After the Cougars struggled to gain 326 total yards in a 30-13 loss to Texas State - the Bobcats, not the Longhorns - first-year coach Tony Levine's offensive coordinator, Mike Nesbitt, resigned.There's been a six-point game against UCLA and the ultimate meltdown, nine turnovers at Southern Methodist. The Mustangs scored four defensive touchdowns in a 72-42 runaway, a margin that rendered the Cougars' 580 total yards meaningless.Those are all factors in the Cougars being in the same boat as Marshall - 4-6 (3-3 C-USA) and needing to win twice to land in a bowl game. Piland averages 294.2 yards per game but has tossed 12 to the wrong team."The quarterback [has struggled with] timing," Rippon said of Piland, who played for an injured Keenum in 2010. "It takes time for them for that to go. And we're talking about things that are bothering them, and they're still putting up 30 points a game, they're still No. 2 in the conference in passing [yardage]."What I noticed is they're not having the explosive plays that they've had - the passes of plus-20, the runs of plus-15, there's not as many."The Cougars had nine such plays in last year's game, three directly resulting in touchdowns. They ran only 57 plays but they averaged 10.9 yards a snap.
Rippon is bracing for more of the former figure, and hoping for much less of the latter. "Tempo-wise, their offense is extremely fast. And they're a good team, a great challenge," he said.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.