FCS’ Tennessee Tech up for the Cougars’ challenge

Tech junior quarterback hands the ball off to senior running back Ladarius Vanlier during the team's Purple vs. Gold spring scrimmage in April.

Houston, we have a problem. Or do we? Tennessee Tech head football coach Watson Brown knows the Cougars don’t this week; his staff and players know it, too, and that’s to be expected.

The Golden Eagles (5-7, 4-4 Ohio Valley Conference in 2014) head to the University of Houston this weekend for their almost-annual Football Bowl Subdivision matchup – a somewhat mutual and understood “lose and get paid” agreement between higher-profile FBS programs and Football Championship Series (FCS) schools seeking dollars to build and improve its own athletic program.

The Cougars are up next on Tech’s prospective list of check signers, as the two teams will meet for the first time in Saturday’s season opener in a road trip for the visiting Cookeville, Tennessee team.

But make no mistake, the Golden Eagles have the same confidence and ambitions of any other college team heading into the first game of the year. They want to win, and they believe they can give the hosting team – the undoubted favorites – a run for its money.

"We’re possibility thinkers,” said Brown. “We don’t worry about who we’re playing, we just have to play a good game and be good enough.”

Commonly portrayed by many as a David vs. Goliath-like mismatch, Brown says the metaphor has its purposes.

“It always is when these levels play each other,” said Brown, “but David did whip Goliath every once in a while. We understand what’s ahead and we know what we’re going up against.”

And Tech is somewhat used to the FBS level of play at this point, as it’s been up against some of the NCAA’s best since Brown began scheduling his underdog rosters to play out of its league since his arrival in 2007.

“It’s no different, we’ve done this so many times,” said Brown of playing at UH. “Lord, we’ve been to Auburn, Oregon, Arkansas, TCU, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia – we treat ‘em all the same.”

Brown’s players echo his pregame approach, even amid the unfavorable projections made by those outside of the team’s culture.

“The objective in any football game is you don’t care who’s across from you,” said junior quarterback Jared Davis. “You’re out there to beat your man in front of you, execute and win the game. We feel like we can be competitive.”

For senior inside linebacker Jay Rudwall, who racked up 101 tackles last season, although Houston’s sizable, speedy offense may appear on paper like an improbable endeavor for Tech’s defense, he says he is not willing to just go down without a fight, regardless of who, what or where is on his team’s plate.

“Whether it’s against Houston at the top level or anyone in our conference in our level, we’re hungry and we want to compete,” Rudwall suggests. “It doesn’t matter who it is, it’s about not backing down from a challenge, and that’s what I think defines us as a team this year. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re Houston, but it’s our first opportunity as a team to prove what we can do this season.”

While Brown suggests the preparation for the game experience has been similar to past FBS trips, as first-time foes, he says scheming for this one has been different from most. With the addition of first-year head coach Tom Herman, the offensive coordinator of last year’s Ohio State Buckeyes National Champion team, and new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who called defensive plays for Utah State’s successful runs the last two seasons, it’s safe to say Brown and staff have had plenty of homework this past week.

“That’s made it hard for us,” Brown said of game planning for the new-look UH coaching staff. “We’ve had to watch Houston tape and then turn around and watch Ohio State tape for the technical stuff and Utah State tape for their defensive coordinator. They’re picked (to finish) second in their league, won their bowl game last year – it’s a very solid team. I think they’re a right-out-of-the-top-25 (FBS preseason ranking) bunch walking in the door. We know they’re good.”

But Tech isn’t without its own showcase of talent, as there are several Golden Eagles with potential to make plays and hold their own against any opposition, no matter the classification.

“Overall, I’ve always said – because I was in the FBS forever before I got to Tech – that we’ve got some guys that could play for Houston,” Brown explained. “The difference is we just don’t have as many as they have and we’re not as deep.”

This year’s Golden Eagles feature a fresh-faced lineup. On both sides of the ball, several newcomers and former second stringers are stepping into starting roles and have built continuity within position groups during the offseason.

On offense, the team is led by Davis, a 6-4, 220-pound starting signal-caller, who is a big-arm passer with even bigger legs, capable of extending plays on his feet if the pocket collapses.

Davis has several targets in a returning talent pool of receivers, most notably in sophomore Brock McCoin (6-0, 185), who has an ability to make flashes as a playmaker at any spot on the field, at any position.

In the backfield, Tech will employ a 1-2 punch tandem of senior carriers in Ladarius Vanlier (5-8, 175) and Radir Annoor (5-11, 200). Ask any of Tech’s 2014 opponents and they’ll say Vanlier can and will make any defense pay if given any amount of wiggle room. Also serving as the return man, with three special teams touchdowns added to five offensive scores last season, the little guy nets big-time production for the Golden Eagles. If given a chance Saturday, he could find his way to the Cougars’ paydirt if they’re not careful.

On defense, Tech returns a majority of its front and middle lines, anchored by Rudwall and preseason all-OVC linebacker Tra’Darius Goff, who missed most of last year with a medical redshirt after back-to-back seasons of 100-plus tackles.

Areas of concern for Brown and staff have been replacing two of last year’s four-year starting safeties. The Cougars could take advantage of the inexperienced defensive backs if they catch them slipping while testing their skills early on.

Additionally, the Golden Eagles will feature a young offensive line that’s equipped with three new starters. The battle up front in both trenches could be over quickly if UH imposes its will as Tech’s young line makes adjustments.

This one could get ugly right out of the gate if Tech can’t find a way to muster up enough confidence and composure in front of the Cougars’ 40,000 home fans.

But then again, the Golden Eagles are used to the baggage of traveling to big-time atmospheres. Like their previous paid losses, they have nothing to lose in this one and everything to gain.