An Air Raid Battle

This Saturday the Houston Cougars will travel to beautiful Ruston, Louisiana to face the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech at 43 year old Joe Aillet Stadium. The Cougars lead the overall series 3-2 but La Tech won the game the last time these two teams met, 19 – 7 on Sept. 9th 1995.

The Bulldogs, members of the wiggity wiggity WAC, have one victory and one loss in the young season coming off of a home victory last week versus Central Arkansas by the score of 48 – 42 in OT. They lost a last minute heartbreaker 19 – 17 in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss in a torrential downpour due to the remnants of tropical storm Lee during the first week of the season.

La Tech is led by head coach Sonny Dykes who has six wins and eight losses under his belt in his second year as a head coach. Dykes, who is the son of the legendary former Texas Tech head coach Spike Dykes, is known as an offensive coaching guru as he is from the famed Air Raid coaching tree in which he learned under former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. He was a grad assistant at Kentucky in 1997 and the special teams and wide receivers coach in 1999 before moving on to coach the receivers at Tech under Leach from 2000 through 2004. What's interesting to note is that current Cougars co-offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, was a QB at Tech from 1998 through 2003. He became Tech's co offensive coordinator along with Dana Holgorsen in 2005 and 06 before moving on to become Arizona's OC and QB coach from 2007 through 09. Holgorsen, of course, was the Cougars offensive coordinator during the 2008 and 09 seasons. In all of his years as an assistant at Kentucky, Tech and Arizona his teams never finished lower than 20th in passing offense nationally.

Tony Franklin is in his second year as the offensive coordinator and QB coach. He is a "spread offense specialist" and thus far he has meshed well with Dykes. This game can be billed as an ‘Air Raid Battle' as Dykes said during his weekly press conference, via, "You put their film on and it looks real familiar, a lot of the same style of offense. They do it well." During his own weekly press conference, Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin said, "Our offenses are the same from a structural standpoint, but everybody evolves. It's been years since they (Kingsbury, Holgorsen and Dykes) coached at Tech. We're #1 in the nation in passing (436.5 yards per game), and they're 60th (43rd actually at 248.5)." Coach Franklin, who calls the plays on game day, also chimed in on the subject when we talked earlier today, "We all have the same starting influence (in talking about Mumme), but everyone branches off and adds their own flavor to it. We do a lot of similar things but the spread means different things to different people." In talking about his spread offense in particular, "We're an up tempo no huddle offense with three or four different speeds. We start off fast and adjust as the game dictates."

Offensively the Bulldogs are led by QB Nick Isham. The 6'0, 185 pound true freshman is the second youngest player to ever start an NCAA game. Only Texas A&M's David "Moon" Walker was younger than Isham. Walker started, and won, his first game 48 – 0 over Wichita State on Sept. 15th, 1973. Walker was 17 years old, 9 months and 26 days to Isham's 17 years and 10 months. What makes Isham so special, according to Franklin, "He's a special kid who leads by example. He outworks me which is hard (laughing). He's got good physical skills but mentally is where he really shows his capabilities."

Other offensive skill position players to keep an eye on include running backs Lennon Greer and Ray Holley whom Franklin describes as a good combo. Greer, a transfer from Tennessee, is a 6'1, 215 pounder who loves to run between the tackles but has the speed to take it to the edges. He rushed for nearly 1200 yards last year to go along with 10 TDs rushing. He's averaging 115 yards per game this season. The 5'9 190 pound Holley is more of a scat back and the Bulldogs are looking to find ways to get the ball into his hands more often. Wide receiver Quinton Patton is a JC transfer who is averaging 153 yards per game receiving which is good for 8th in the nation. Coach Franklin told me "he has great ball skills and is a great competitor." This is proven by the fact that he averages a mind blowing 23.5 yards per reception, which should put the Cougars defensive backs on high alert. Franklin said that receiver Taulib Ikharo has been their most consistent receiver over the past two years.

Speaking of the Cougars defense, Coach Sumlin likes the way they have played thus far but said their is "definitely room for improvement. We held the running back whom was 8th in the nation in yardage (Lance Dunbar) to 75 yards." Of the players asked that has impressed him most he said, "D.J. Hayden has made a bunch of great plays in coverage and had some really good tackles in space. Chevy Bennet is also coming along. He's a big guy with great range and has ability to tackle. Overall we just need to be in the right spot. Zach McMillan has been solid so our two corners have been playing very well and so has Marcus(McGraw). It's amazing what having athletes in the backfield can do. We just need to get some production from other players. We are not saying they are playing poorly. We would just like them to be more productive."

For the Bulldogs defensively, they run a 4-2-5 base scheme, led by 5th year defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler. They allowed 30.6 points per game last season and the first two games of this season combined. Of course they, like the Cougars, play in a pass happy league. Defensive players to look out for include defensive end Matt Broha. The 6'4, 255 pound redshirt senior has 15.5 career sacks to go along with 2 tackles for loss this season. Their three leading tacklers are free safety Jamel Johnson (with 19), and starting linebackers Adrien Cole and Jay Dudely (with 18 and 17 respectively). Said Cougars QB Case Keenum about their nickel based scheme, "We feel know matter what defense we play against we can make our own stuff work. It doesn't really matter what alignment defenses run against us." This confidence is why Keenum will soon be the NCAA's all time passing leader.

For the first time this season the Cougars may not hold the edge in the special team's battle. Both teams have blocked 2 kicks on the young season. La Tech has blocked two field goals (one to keep from losing in OT versus Central Arkansas last week) as well as recovering a fumbled punt. They also have returned one kickoff for a TD (an 86 yarder by Lyle Fitte) and returned one punt for 52 yards (Andrew Guillot). Fitte, a junior running back, is 17th in the nation in kick returns averaging 31.3 on 10 returns thus far on the early season. This could be a troublesome spot as the Cougars are 109th in the nation in kickoff coverage allowing a robust 28 yard average on 12 returns. Stats can be skewed early in the season as North Texas Brelan Chancellor torched the Coogs last week with 286 yards on 9 returns including a 73 yarder for an average of nearly 29 per return. Coach Sumlin stated, "We've been pretty good in special teams despite letting their guy (Chancellor) get off last week." The Coogs are in the top 5 in the nation in punt return defense and Richie Leone leads the nation in punting averaging nearly 54 yards on 5 punts. The Cougars won't finish the season in the top 50 in punting as they never have enough attempts to qualify, which of course is a great thing.

Bottom line, this game will be like the varsity versus the JV team. The Cougars have more talent on both sides of the ball and should win easily. Hopefully last week's game at North Texas showed the guys that they just can't expect to walk out onto the field and have the other team bow down. Coach Sumlin said about the slow start last week, "we created a perfect storm against ourselves on the road and had to dig our way out of it." I think the offense gets back to its basics in the short passing game and Charles Sims(whom Sumlin has said will definitely play) has a break out game running and receiving. The junior running back has had a shaky start to the season as he suffered a concussion in the game versus UCLA.

Final prediction: Cougars 45, Bulldogs 31

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