John Parker Wilson's struggles continue. His overall statistics aren't bad at all, but it's production on the scoreboard that has been lacking. Alabama hasn't scored a first-half touchdown since the Arkansas game. For the season, Wilson is 100-of-186 with six TDs, three INTs, and 1,091 yards. Houston's defense – the most porous UA has seen since Western Carolina - should provide the proper tonic to get Wilson back in a groove.
The Cougars employ a two-headed monster at this spot with Blake Joseph and Case Keenum. Both have played in every game and each has started twice. With a 75% completion rate and only one interception, Joseph has been the more effective of the two. Keenum has completed 63% himself, and is more effective as a rusher. The Cougars have clearly passed the ball better than Alabama this year, but the defenses UH has done it against and all the high-percentage throws don't permit an edge over an experienced SEC starter.
Coming off its worst performance of the season, look for Alabama's offensive front to play with a nastier-than-usual edge Saturday. When the backs combine for under 100 rushing yards and John Parker Wilson is pressured by a three-man front – as happened last week – it's something this veteran line should take personally. With Marlon Davis' excused absence from practice this week, watch for Evan Cardwell to get a little action at center with Antoine Caldwell playing Davis' right guard spot, at least for a series or two.
Despite offensive principles that get the ball out quickly and a pair of relatively mobile quarterbacks, UH's pass protection has allowed nine sacks in four games. The Cougars feature three returning starters up front in Jeff Akeroyd, Dustin Dickinson and Michael Bloesch. Houston is less tested on the interior with new starters at center (Carl Barnett) and guard (Sebastian Vollmer). Like Alabama, there hasn't been a missed start on the unit this year.
The combination of Terry Grant and Glen Coffee has proven to be an effective one for Alabama this season, notwithstanding last week's struggles. Grant remains above a 100-yard average per game and on a freshman-record pace for the season. As Alabama's big-play threat in the backfield, Grant's production has been on a steady decline of late. Sophomore Roy Upchurch appears to be making a steady move for increased playing time.
With apologies to freshman backup Terrance Ganaway, who has been solid in a backup role, Houston's rushing attack begins and ends with Anthony Alridge. Alabama fans might be surprised to see that Terry Grant may be just the second-quickest back on the field Saturday. Alridge averages 5.8 per carry and 110.8 per game, and will beat the Tide secondary in a footrace if given the chance. At 170 pounds, however, don't look for him to break many tackles.
DJ Hall gives Alabama an established No.1 receiver (23 catches, 420 yards, three TDs). But for a unit that is supposed to have so much depth, it remains debatable who Wilson's second-best option is. Matt Caddell and Mike McCoy have been reliable but rarely make a play downfield. Keith Brown has been much the opposite, less consistent but good for a big play here and there. Beginning Saturday, someone other than Hall must start doing both.
Houston's depth and quickness at receiver is the engine of this offense. Donnie Avery averages over 100 yards per game and will be the first target both UH quarterbacks look for. Avery is dangerous in the open field and does a lot of damage on screen plays. Five UH pass catchers have at least one catch of over 25 yards this season. But they're not all jitterbugs: Jeron Harvey presents this week's size challenge at 6-5, and at 225 pounds, he'll be even harder to bring down than last week's tall flavor, FSU's Greg Carr. UA's edge is a slight one.
Step-aside time for injured end Bobby Greenwood means step-up time for his replacement, Brandon Deaderick. Meanwhile, it's breakout time for noseguard Brian Motley. Between Greenwood's ailing ankle (he is questionable at best) and Motley's return, the defensive line will take on a different look against the Cougars. In his part-time debut last week, Motley made as many tackles (two) as all his replacements combined for in the previous four games. Wallace Gilberry continues to lead UA's line statistically (26 tackles, 4.5 for loss), but pocket pressure continues to be a problem.
Like Alabama, Houston employs a three-man line in its base defense. Noseguard Tate Stewart leads the group with 18 tackles, including four for losses. Phillip Hunt is the pass rusher up front with 2.5 sacks through four games, and is tied for the team lead with 4.5 TFLs. Ell Ash and Cody Pree will also see extensive playing time. One of the worst rushing defenses in C-USA should have its hands full on the line of scrimmage Saturday.
Ezekial Knight continues steady improvement at the strongside spot and turned in his best performance of the season Saturday against Florida State with nine tackles. Freshman MLB Rolando McClain and fellow inside backers Prince Hall and Darren Mustin will be challenged Saturday as Houston likes to expose linebackers in space. While this may be Knight's kind of game, UH's style isn't a good matchup for the trio of inside guys. Jack LB Keith Saunders was quiet last week (1 assisted tackle).
The Cougars are led by Brendan Pahulu at linebacker, who has notched 27 career starts and is the defenses undisputed playmaker. He leads the team in both interceptions (2) and sacks (3), and has posted 28.5 TFLs in his career. Ernest Miller, Cody Lubojasky and Trent Allen round out UH's linebacking corps in a base 3-4 scheme. Miller was a third-team All-Conference-USA choice in the preseason.
The Crimson Tide will be in a nickel or dime package almost the entire day against the Cougars, which means more playing time for dime-back Ali Sharrief and potentially more action for Marquis Johnson. Johnson missed a couple of crucial tackles against Florida State last week, but could get the nod again in the nickel package depending on his practice week. Tackling will be especially important for the secondary against Houston's quickness at the skill positions.
UH is stronger at safety than at corner. FS Rocky Schwartz leads the team in tackles, which speaks well of Schwartz but poorly of the defensive front seven. Schwartz has made 31 stops and notched three pass breakups. SS Kenneth Fontenette broke up 13 passes as a sophomore last season and moved to safety from corner earlier this year. Harry Simon and Loyce Means man the corner spots for the Cougars.
Alabama's special teams have regressed in recent weeks, particularly in the return department. Leigh Tiffin has shown steady improvement with field goals, converting his last four tries going back to the Arkansas game, and five of his last six. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald continues to flash a 50-plus yarder once in a while, but lacks consistency otherwise. Kickoff coverage has been solid all season considering where the kicks have been settling.
The UH return game is explosive with Alridge and Avery averaging 35 yards each on kickoffs. T.J. Lawrence had a disastrous game against East Carolina, missing three field goals – two inside of 40 yards - in a two-point loss. With six touchbacks on the season, however, he's a better kickoff man than UA's Tiffin. Punter Chase Turner averages 38.9 per kick. Not that UH's special teams can necessarily take credit for it, but opponents are just 1 of 7 on field goals against Houston this year.