Game preview: Houston vs. East Carolina

Houston Cougars football quarterback Clayton Tune scans the field against the South Florida Bulls on Oct. 29 inside of TDECU Stadium. (Courtesy Houston Athletics)

Game preview: Houston vs. East Carolina


Houston (6-4, 4-2 American Athletic) vs. East Carolina (6-4, 3-3 AAC)

Game time: 1 p.m. CT

TV/radio: ESPN+/KPRC 950 AM

What’s at stake: Houston’s already slim chances at making the American Athletic Conference championship game depend on the Cougars’ ability to beat the Pirates.

When the Cougars have the ball: Houston quarterback Clayton Tune has been on an offensive tear since the fourth quarter of the team’s game against Memphis. The Cougars have scored 33 or more points in five straight games and 42 or more in three consecutive outings.

In order for Houston to have success against the Pirates, Tune will need to lead the offense into the end zone multiple times in what could be another barn burner in Greenville, North Carolina.

Against ECU, Tune will face off against a quarterback on the other side that is nearly a mirror image regarding the accolades they have accumulated in their time with their respective programs.

When ECU has the ball: Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk said ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers is the engine that makes everything run for the Pirates. He has thrown for 2,912 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 2022.

Ahlers holds the all-time American Athletic Conference record for career passing yards. He has accumulated 12,862 passing yards since 2018. Tune is second with 10,946 passing yards. Ahlers is third in the conference in all-time career passing touchdowns with 89. Tune is first with 95.

“His production speaks for itself,” said Belk on Ahlers. “When it is all said and done, he’ll be one of the top 10 most productive quarterbacks passing the ball in the history of college football.”

The team’s skill positions are filled with veterans, led by receiver Isaiah Winstead, Belk said. Winstead leads ECU with 929 receiving yards, 72 catches, and three touchdowns. Running back Keaton Mitchell is electric, Belk said.

Mitchell, who suffered a big hit against Cincinnati last Friday, is expected to play against the Cougars on Saturday, ECU head coach Mike Houston told reporters on Tuesday. Mitchell leads the Pirates in rushing with 975 yards on the ground and 10 rushing touchdowns this season.

“I think they are one of the most talented, well-coached, physical teams in our league, so it is probably the greatest challenge that we have yet, not only because we play them next but because of how they are built and how they are coached,” Belk said.

Key Cougars to watch: Running back Stacy Sneed has strung together some strong performances in the last four games. He has accumulated 60-plus rushing yards in each of the four outings, including two 100-plus yard performances.

Sneed had a career-high 143 rushing yards against Temple, but he also had a key fumble loss in the fourth quarter that sparked a Temple drive, which allowed the Owls to score a go-ahead touchdown. Holgorsen said Sneed suffered an injury late in Saturday’s game. If he is able to go, Sneed will be a fun player to watch to see how he continues his hot run on the ground.

Receiver Matthew Golden is another player to watch. He caught Houston’s final go-ahead touchdown in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter against Temple to help lift the Cougars past the Owls. Since returning from injury against SMU, Golden has scored a touchdown in each outing.

The bottom line: The last time Houston played a quarterback at the level of Ahlers, the defense gave up 77 points and nine passing touchdowns to SMU’s Tanner Mordecai.

The Cougars’ defense played better against Temple, but that is not saying much. Quarterback E.J. Warner nearly threw for 500 yards. Both head coach Dana Holgorsen and Belk said that UH’s secondary needs to play better, and they are in for a tough challenge on Saturday.

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