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Pirates' big test starts against Oliver

Houston Rice Football
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Houston Cougars defensive tackle Ed Oliver (10) jumps over Rice lineman Uzoma Osuji as Jack Greene, right, awaits during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Sep. 1, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Friday, October 12, 2018

Only two American Athletic Conference teams this season are scheduled to face Houston and Central Florida in consecutive weeks.

East Carolina gets the first shot at the difficult two-week swing, beginning Saturday night with Houston coming to Greenville, and Temple faces it in November. The Owls will play both on the road, while ECU gets them at home.

UH and UCF, which features star quarterback McKenzie Milton leading the Knights on an 18-game win streak heading into this week’s game at Memphis, are the favorites to play in the AAC championship game Dec. 1.

For the Cougars (4-1, 1-0), stardom begins with defensive lineman Ed Oliver.

Teams have tried myriad of strategies in blocking the 6-foot-3, 292-pounder, who won the Outland Trophy (college football’s best interior lineman) a year ago as a sophomore and after this season is projected to be one of the first few picks in the NFL draft. He will put pressure on ECU’s interior offensive line, which is led by center John Spellacy and left guard Cortez Herrin.

Starting right guard Branden Pena is still out with an injury, pushing Dqmarcus Shaw and Fernando Frye to the forefront at that position.

“He is a high-motor guy and he plays with a lot of energy and a lot of leverage and strength,” Spellacy, a sophomore from Westlake, Ohio, said of Oliver. “He holds the line of scrimmage. He’s probably the No. 1 defensive player in the country, so we have to match his intensity and we have to get lower than him and we have to play with a lot of heart.”

The Cougars’ Heisman Trophy campaign for Oliver included in the preseason when they mailed to Heisman voters a bobblehead figurine of Oliver riding a horse. UCF also has made a Heisman push for Milton.

Sparked by a their surge a few weeks ago and the speed of defensive ends Nate Harvey and Kendall Futrell, it is the Pirates (2-3, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) who lead the AAC in sacks at 3.8 per game.

Despite Oliver’s presence, UH ranks 129th in the nation — next to last — in passing yards allowed per game.

UH beat the Pirates 52-27 last season, but Oliver wasn’t a leader in terms of impact. The Houston native totaled four tackles (one for loss) and one quarterback hurry.

“We’ll study the film from last year, but this is a whole new year and we have a lot of new people playing,” Spellacy said. “He’s a great player and everything, but I go into every week treating a player (the same) with how much film study I do. I’ll do the same amount, if not more, film study this week.”

Oliver burst onto the scene as a freshman with with 23 tackles for loss.

Cougars coach Major Applewhite was asked during his weekly news conference about his lead star’s statistics this season.

He is third on the team with 40 tackles and he leads the Cougs with eight QB hurries and 6.5 tackles for loss, but Oliver has yet to secure a sack. He had 10.5 for his career.

Isaiah Chambers leads the Cougars with 4.5 sacks, but he is out for the rest of the year with a knee injury.

Houston has 10 total sacks, and has allowed one for minus-1 yard.

"It's hard to account for the production he allows others to have,” Applewhite said of Oliver. “It reminds me of back in the day when we were playing against (Oklahoma State receiver) Dez Bryant. You always had to put a safety and a corner over the top of Dez Bryant, then all of a sudden Kendall Hunter kills you. ... Maybe that's his impact. There are certain things where players like that can create issues.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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