Houston coach Kevin Sumlin made quite an analogy earlier this week when asked about the different styles of play between the Eastern and Western divisions of Conference USA.
“It's like the Big Ten and the Pac-10,” Sumlin said during his weekly press conference.
The East likes to grind it out. The West likes to air it out.
But Houston has started to resemble more of an East team without Case Keenum, and that has helped the Cougars remain on top of the West Division headed into a critical game against UCF on Friday night.
Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes have helped shoulder the load in the last few games, taking the pressure of true freshman quarterback David Piland. Beall hurt his knee last week in a win over Memphis, and Sumlin wouldn’t say whether he would play. But without him, Hayes had a career-high 123 yards and Chris Wilson added 95 as the Cougars racked up 248 yards on the ground.
In their last three games, Houston has over 150 yards rushing with two victories. The resurgence of the run game has been impressive, considering the team lost leading rusher Charles Sims to start the season after being ruled ineligible.
“I said during our two-a-day practices that our running back situation went from, ‘Oh no’ to, ‘Oh wow,’ and that's really being proven this year,” Sumlin said. “The loss of Charles Sims was significant for the year. Charles is doing great right now in school and we look forward to having him back next year. Mike has picked up the slack to help us. Chris Wilson hasn't gone unnoticed.
“We've got some capable running backs with really different styles that complement each other. Since we've been here, there has been a worry that we didn't have running backs, but we do. We'd love to have Bryce back, but we have guys who’ve shown they can get things done, too.”
Even UCF coach George O’Leary has noticed a change.
“They run the ball extremely well so you just can’t play coverage, you have to be able to defend the box too,” he said. “That’s the change they probably made. I don’t know if they would have run as much had the other quarterback stayed healthy, but I do think they are doing a good job of getting the run game in and keeping people honest.”
But this will be the biggest test for the Houston run game, because it is going against one of the best defenses in Conference USA and the country.
Meanwhile, Houston has one of the worst rushing defenses in the league and will get a big test from the Knights on the ground. Ronnie Weaver has emerged, and is coming off a career-high 180 yards rushing last week against East Carolina. Quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey can run, too.
UCF is No. 2 in the league in rushing offense, while Houston is No. 5.
“Ronnie basically does a great job of doing what he does,” O’Leary said. “He works extremely hard in practice. I don’t think he has finished yet as far as being a running back.”
UCF has won 10 straight league games and sits atop the East. Another win, and the Knights will continue on as the favorite to win the league.
Houston, the preseason favorite, would love to change all that.