By Mark Mayorga
Daily Cougar Staff
Entering into Conference USA action, both the Memphis Tigers (0-3) and Houston Cougars (0-4) are in search of their first win of the season. Fortunately, for one of these lucky teams, they will get it 7 p.m. Saturday at Robertson Stadium.
Having less-than-productive outings in the win column this season, each team has a chance to turn its season around by having a clean slate entering into conference play.
"No one wants to start conference 0-1 and it means almost everything to start 1-0," head coach Kim Helton said. "Memphis is a lot like UH so far. They've played three very capable teams tough and have been in games until maybe a big play or two."
The Cougars are limping into this game after suffering a 42-7 loss to the No. 4 Tennessee Vols before a crowd of 106,417 at Neyland Stadium Saturday.
The Cougars not only had to stomach a 35-point loss and a fourth straight loss, but suffered a great deal of injuries as well.
"It's football, and if you play as hard as you're supposed to, people are going to get hurt. But right now we're very banged up. You try and keep your injuries from dictating your practice, but injuries or not, we have to be ready for a big conference game Saturday," Helton said.
The secondary was hit the hardest with the injury bug; William Fields remains doubtful for Saturday's game and Kenny Hill is definitely out. With these two starters injured, the Cougars have had to count on very inexperienced backups. Coach Helton is genuinely concerned with the defensive backs.
"Right now our secondary is about as young as I've seen. You can't play the corners at 80 percent. It just won't work. You might be able to get away with being 80 percent on the offensive line, but it shows in the secondary. That's a concern, because Memphis will test us there and everywhere we're hurting."
With the Cougars' injury list growing, Memphis' offense may have a breakout day.
Even though the Tigers' quarterback situation has been shaky through their first three games, they could see the same success Tennessee's Tee Martin had with the Cougars' injury replacements.
One of the biggest problems for the Cougar defense this season has been giving up the big play and missing tackles, but if they want to break their four- game losing streak, these mistakes will have to be limited.
After having a hard time trying to get hold of Martin last week in Knoxville, the Cougar defense should be able to get the kind of pressure on the quarterback that they did in the UCLA game. One point to note however the Cougars have to be aware of the screen pass that was able to compile large amounts of yardage a year ago in the Memphis game.
Moving the ball has, for the most part, been done throughout the season, but moving the ball inside the red zone has been an entirely different story for the Cougar offense in its first four games. Having averaged 12 points per game, the offense will get a relief from facing top-ranked defenses and will surely improve on its scoring average.
In last week's loss, Jason McKinley showed signs of maturing as he threw for 200 yards and a touchdown on 21 of 28 passing. It was also McKinley's first start without an interception.
"Jason McKinley is becoming one of the best quarterbacks in this part of the country. He played extremely well last week and we expect him to continue to play well," Helton said of his sophomore QB.
With McKinley improving week to week, Jerrian James has emerged as his favorite target.
Over his last two games, James has given the opposing teams all kinds of trouble, as he has caught 20 passes for 269 yards. His 7.5 yards per catch ranks him eighth in the country and, in all likelihood, will improve as he lines up against the Tigers' cornerbacks.
Coming into conference play, the Cougars' special teams play has to become an asset instead of a liability. Mike Waddell has to become more effective and be able to be counted on when the Cougars need three points after drives stall.
Starting punter Joey Saavedra has kicked only one ball for more than 45 yards and must improve for the special teams to do so. The return teams, led by Ketric Sanford on kickoffs and Jerrian James on punts, must become a more cohesive unit, occasionally breaking off big runs in key situations.