In my game preview piece I predicted the Cougars to win 56-45. At least I was half right as QB Case Keenum continues to beautifully orchestrate this offense on a weekly basis. The 6th year senior completed 30 of 37 passes for 304 and three touchdown passes through three quarters of work. Cotton Turner took most of the snaps during the 4th quarter, even leading the team to its final score on a 10 play 80 yard drive capped off by his 8 yard scoring scamper off of a roll out on a bootleg. In what continues to be a trend when playing at home, the offense got off to yet another fast start scoring on five of six first half possessions to basically put the game away. Not only did they score, they scored touchdowns in all seven red zone opportunities. This was a key going into the game as most thought this would be yet another high scoring affair between the two high flying ‘Air Raid' offenses. The Cougars held up their end of the bargain as Keenum easily completed his first 10 passes before his first incompletion. He continues to place the ball in spots only his receivers can catch, as his two interceptions (against 17 touchdowns through the air) would indicate. Whether it's a ‘back shoulder fade' or ‘throwing his receivers open,' Keenum has the uncanny ability to lead his receivers so they can catch the ball on the run, gaining major YAC (yard after the catch) yardage, which helps propel this offense as they do not throw deep often. For the season, Keenum has completed 71.4 percent of his passes (170-238) for 2,309 yards. He is now 2nd in the NCAA FBS record book with 15,895 passing yards, which is just 1,177 yards shy of former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang. At his current pace of nearly 385 passing yards per game, he will pass Chang either November the 5th game at UAB or the 10th at Tulane.
Of Keenum's first ten completions, only one was more than 15 yards down field as the offense continues to take what opposing defenses give them. Most defenses seem content to let Keenum and his receivers play "pitch and catch" all the way down the field. Of course with the Cougars no huddle up tempo pace, most defenses get worn down easily and this game was no different as the offense tallied 572 total yards on 85 plays. The Cougars now lead all FBS teams in both total and passing offense at 603.7 and 435.5 yards per game respectively. Eleven Cougars caught passes from both Keenum and Turner, among them; receiver Patrick Edwards had yet another stellar game with 12 receptions for 133 yards with 2 TDs. The senior caught 10 of those passes for 110 yards with both TDs before halftime. Tyron Carrier had 53 yards receiving on 7 catches with one TD, all with torn ligaments in his right elbow. This injury, suffered earlier in the year, would explain the many drops in previous games. Slot receiver Justin Johnson had a down game for him with "only" 4 receptions for 51 yards.
The Cougars running game cannot go without being mentioned as all three Cougar running backs continue to excel this season. Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and Charles Sims combined for 191 rushing yards on 29 carries. The three carved up the Pirates smaller defensive front inside (Beall's 47 yards on 9 carries) and out-as Sims 84 yards on 9 carries and Hayes 60 on 12 would attest. All three had rushing TDs for the second game this season (the first versus GSU) with Sims rushing for two. The Cougars often overlooked rushing game is now at 52nd nationally (and 4th in CUSA) averaging 158.8 yards per game. The Cougars are 18-3 when rushing for over 150 yards during head coach Kevin Sumlin's four year tenure on Cullen Boulevard. Sumlin said about Saturday's performance offensively via uhcougars.com, "We made plays when we needed to offensively, got everybody involved. I thought we were able to run the ball extremely effectively in the game and really get into a rhythm offensively."
A lot of credit also needs to go to the offensive line consisting of starters Jacolby Ashworth, Ty Cloud, Chris Thompson, Kevin Forsch, and Rowdy Harper from left tackle to right tackle respectively. Coach Sumlin praised them when he said, "Whenever we've been able to operate on back-to-back 700-yard weeks, you can't do that without the guys up front being able to perform. We're getting good plays from our offensive line."
This was the Cougars best game defensively in a long time as they held the Pirates to 284 total yards, of which only 21 were rushing. Through three quarters ECU ran for a negative twelve yards. That was not a typo as the Cougars front seven dominated the ECU offensive line. Many factors played into the Cougars swarming defensive play, including ECU's young offensive line – I had mentioned in my preview piece that the Pirates had the third fewest returning starts along their O-line with only 15 spread among two returning starters. And one of the two returning starters, center Doug Polochak was out with a knee injury. This youth really hurt ECU along the line as will linebacker Sammy Brown had his way with both tackles for ECU as he was lined up along the edge on both sides throughout the course of the game. Brown had six tackles including 2.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks. The senior ranks third on the team in tackles at 44 as he has become much more than just the typical 3-4 "rush" backer that he was last year. For the season, he leads the team with 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, which also leads the nation. Brown's backup, George Bamfo had a breakout game using his quickness to speed past the ECU tackles as he registered 3 sacks. He also had 3 TFL among his 7 tackles. In all the Cougars recorded a season high 9 sacks with predominantly their front seven as they used their back seven in coverage against the familiar Air Raid based ECU offensive attack.
The defense was even more impressive when taking into account the lack of regular starters in the secondary due to injury. Safeties Chevy Bennett, Colton Valencia (concussions) and corner back D.J. Hayden (hamstring) were held out of the game. In their respective places were Nick Saenz at Free Safety, Kent Brooks at strong safety and Thomas Bates started his second straight game in place of Hayden. They all did a magnificent job in coverage as the Cougar defensive backs all tackled very well in their one on one matchups. The game plan was to allow the Pirate receivers to catch passes on underneath routes while not allowing any YAC yards. Sam outside backer Phillip Steward had two of the Cougars four interceptions on the night (Bates and freshman Derrick Mathews had the others) as he physically re-directed ECU slot receivers off of their routes masterfully all night long. Defense is a reaction game by nature. If an athlete is thinking about his job responsibilities or fundamentals out on the field, he'll get beat on his play. Fundamental and technique work is what the practice field is for and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart must be given credit for finally having the Coogs defense ready to play. Defensive end David Hunter said during post game when asked if there was anything special the Cougars defense did Saturday night, "There was nothing special. We just went out there and played the way we were supposed to play. No tricks, no gimmicks, we just played hard and did the things we did at practice." The Cougars would have shut out their second opponent this year if not for a 54 yard field goal by the Pirates.
Even the special teams played up to its capabilities during the game as Edwards finally broke a long one on a 54 yard punt return to set up the Cougars second score. Kicker Jordan Mannisto had 5 touchbacks on 9 kickoffs, giving him 15 on 38 total kickoffs. The 39.4 percent touchback percentage is good for 11th nationally, helping the Cougars coverage teams avoid having to chase opposing kick returners as their 22.6 average per return ranks them 84th nationally.
Overall the Cougars played their best game of the season in all three phases of the game and look to take the momentum going into their off week. They host the Marshall Thundering Herd on Saturday October the 22nd. Game time is scheduled for 3:30pm (CST) at the Rob and will be televised by CSS.