Cougars will have their hands full in the Las Vegas Bowl vs. San Diego State

QB Greg Ward Jr. is the key to success for the Houston Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
QB Greg Ward Jr. is the key to success for the Houston Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports /

The 9-3 Houston Cougars travel to Las Vegas on Saturday to face the Mountain West champion San Diego State Aztecs.

The Houston Cougars would love nothing more than to finish off the 2016 campaign with a Las Vegas Bowl victory. But in order to do so, they’ll need top-notch performances on both sides of the ball.

When the Cougars don’t have the ball

For San Diego State, the entire offense goes through senior running back Donnel Pumphrey. Despite his small stature, Pumphrey stands tall as one of college football’s most explosive playmakers.

At 5-9 and 165 pounds, the Las Vegas native finished just ten yards behind the nation’s leading rusher with 2,018 yards on 330 attempts. If the Cougars want to stop the Aztec offense, they will have to bottle up and contain Pumphrey. It’s a task easier said than done, but it can be done.

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What’s astonishing is that the number 88th and 99th-ranked rushing defenses bottled him up this season. There’s no doubt that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has looked at these tapes to gain some intel.

Keep in mind, his squad finished third in the country in fewest rushing yards allowed per game at just 97.9. In fact, seven of their 12 opposing teams failed to reach 100 yards this season.

Of those seven, four failed to even rush for 50 yards. If any team knows how to stop the run, it’s Houston.

Freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver is a driving force behind the Cougar defense. His 19.5 tackles for a loss were the eighth-most by all players in FBS football, and he broke up nine passes to lead all linemen. He’s far and away the most impactful freshman in the game this season.

When the Cougars do have the ball

Houston has their own set of offensive playmakers, too. Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. led all of the American Conference in passing yards with 3,328. He led the conference despite missing the Lamar game, which would have just further-padded his numbers anyway.

Ward has some wheels, too. Ward’s dual-threat ability able gains yardage by foot when its needed. The Tulsa Golden Hurricane learned this first-hand when he raced for 142 rushing yards on them.

The Aztec player that poses the biggest threat to Ward though, is senior cornerback Damontae Kazee. His seven interceptions led the Mountain West Conference and tied him for third nationally. He’ll be playing on Sundays beginning next season, and if the Cougars are careless with the ball, they’ll understand why.

When it’s all said and done

This game has the makings of a classic. The Cougars look to even their all-time record in bowl games, which is currently 11-12-1. Meanwhile, the Aztecs will attempt to break the .500 threshold as they are 7-7 all-time in bowl games. Something’s going to give.

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Both teams will start with their bread and butter. San Diego State will move the ball on the ground while Houston tries an aerial approach. There won’t be much scoring activity until the second half when things open up and both teams try new things, playing to their own weaknesses. The Cougars run better than the Aztecs pass and will eek out a close one behind the feet of Ward.

Prediction: Houston 24, San Diego State 21