Fresno State has five players from the Houston area on its roster, gearing up for a shot at the hometown team in the Hawaii Bowl.
They will face guys they played with and against while growing up, from Pop Warner to high school or junior college.
For some of these Bulldogs, though, the matchup against Houston holds no special attraction outside of a chance to win a 10th game this season.
Fresno State defensive end Tobenna Okeke grew up in Missouri City, Texas, which is a few minutes outside of Houston and not far away from, of all places, Fresno, an unincorporated area just to the south and east.
He didn’t have much interest in going to college and playing football at Houston, though.
“I wasn’t trying to stay in Houston at all,” Okeke says. “It would have been like still being in high school. Everybody goes to UH from Houston.
“I wanted to go out and see a bunch of different people, and there are not too many times you get to go and experience California.”
Same with linebacker Trent Soechting, who is from Katy, Texas, west of Houston on Interstate 10.
“I was more of a Texas A&M fan,” he says.
Backup running back Saevion Johnson is from Pearland, Texas, just south of Houston. Cornerback Sherman Coleman Jr., is from Houston, coming to Fresno State from Cisco College. Anthoula Kelly, a cornerback, also is from the area and he has a little more invested in the matchup.
Kelly, from Galena Park, east of Houston, went to a few of the Cougars’ football camps and was hoping for a chance to play for UH after playing quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback and safety in high school. The campus, he says, is 12 minutes away from home and he knows all of the spots to hit between the two.
“Frenchy’s Chicken. It’s the greatest chicken. Then you have Dots, which is a restaurant right around the corner from that. Then you have Sonic right down the street and they always had a special on Tuesday when the Texans won – free slushy Tuesday.”
He is looking forward to playing against the Cougars.
“It’s going to be fun and wild; exciting, actually,” says Kelly, who moved into the starting lineup against New Mexico in the sixth game of the season, has been credited with six pass breakups and picked off a pass to seal the Bulldogs’ victory at Hawaii.
Everybody goes to UH from Houston. I wanted to go out and see a bunch of different people, and there are not too many times you get to go and experience California.
Fresno State defensive end Tobenna Okeke
“For sure, I have something to prove. I was slept on as a recruit my freshman year. This is going to be something big for me. But it’s going to be big for all of us. We need this one.”
To get it, the Bulldogs will have to slow a Houston offense that has thrived on big plays since sophomore quarterback D’Eriq King entered the starting lineup.
The past three games, the Cougars have averaged 7.8 yards per play. If that had been there over a full season, Houston would be leading an American Athletic Conference that includes Central Florida and Memphis and second in the nation behind Oklahoma.
Okeke and Kelly are expected to play significant roles in trying to stop the Cougars, who are 7-4 and have two curious losses away from home. Houston lost 45-17 at Tulsa, which went 2-10. It also lost at Tulane, a 5-7 team.
While Kelly is matching up with the Cougars’ wideouts, Okeke will be trying to get to the opposing quarterback for the first time in three games.
The 245-pound senior, who made the switch to defensive end from outside linebacker this season, is second on the team with 9.0 tackles for loss and tied for first with defensive tackle Malik Forrester with 5.0 sacks.
Three of those sacks came in Aloha Stadium in a 31-21 victory over Hawaii. Now he’s back for the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
- Sunday, Dec. 24: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
- Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
- TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
- Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power 5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.