Marshall football: Houston QB finds his niche
HUNTINGTON - It's not just a long shadow that Houston quarterback David Piland is trying to escape. It's the longest.
The Cougars are one season removed from former signal-caller Case Keenum setting Football Bowl Subdivision career records for completions, yards and touchdown passes. And now Piland, a redshirt sophomore, is leading the charge for this Houston offense to carve its own identity.
"I feel like we've done a pretty good job of starting to make our own name and definitely get that offense rolling," Piland said.
Piland will try to keep that unit going this weekend when the Cougars (4-6, 3-3 Conference USA) visit Marshall (4-6, 3-3 Conference USA) at noon Saturday (CSS telecast).
While it's not the juggernaut it was in 2011 when Keenum led the Cougars to an FBS-best 599.07 total yards and 49.29 points per game, the Piland-led offense generally has performed well. Houston is second in C-USA to the Thundering Herd in total yards per game (473.4 to Marshall's 511.3) and passing yards per game (324.6 to Marshall's 358.5).
Piland is second in C-USA to Marshall's Rakeem Cato in passing yards per game (292.7 to Cato's 350.6). He's completed 255 of 447 passes this year for 2,927 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But where the 2012 Houston offense hasn't matched the 2011 offense is in point production.
This year's Cougars are averaging 30.8 points per game. It's a healthy number, but nearly three touchdowns fewer than what Houston averaged last season.
Last Saturday against Tulsa, the Cougars could muster just one touchdown in a 41-7 loss, and that came in fourth-quarter garbage time on a Crawford Jones pass to Ryan Jackson. Piland threw for just 148 yards and two interceptions on 15-of-32 passing.
With Marshall's point-happy offense on the horizon, Piland said it's imperative that Houston returns to its high-scoring ways.
That means focusing on little things.
"There are things that happen that are so small that can just kill a drive, just one play or one block," he said. "We're just focusing on those and trying to tweak those and make sure we don't make the same mistake twice."
From what Marshall has seen on film, Piland likes to throw in rhythm. One place where the Herd has improved late in the season is disrupting quarterbacks' rhythm. In its last three games, Marshall's defense has recorded seven sacks and five interceptions, including three sacks and three picks last week against UAB quarterback Austin Brown.
Those numbers represent half the Herd's season sack total and more than half of its season interception total.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the team must keep that pressure up against Piland.
"He's really accurate with the quick-outs, bubble screens and those things that they do when he can stay in a rhythm," Holliday said. "People that have put pressure on him have created issues for them. It's going to be important that we try to get that done. We have to try to get him out of that rhythm and force him to hang on to the ball a little bit."
While following the most prolific passer in FBS history may be daunting for some, Piland welcomes the challenge, mainly because of the close relationship he has with Keenum. When Keenum tore his ACL against UCLA in 2010, Piland emerged and started eight games for Houston that year, averaging 330.1 passing yards per game.
Now, with Keenum on the Houston Texans' practice squad, the two talk at least once a week, and often about matters beyond football.
"He's been a good friend and an awesome role model," he said. "Everything that I've wanted to be in a quarterback ... he's broken all sorts of records and it's fun to think that he's the guy you're coming after because he's set the bar so high.
"If I need help with football, he's there for that, but it goes a lot deeper than that," Piland added. "He's a really great person and never lets me forget that's what defines you."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.