If they win they earn the right to host either Southern Mississippi or Marshall in the C-USA championship game Saturday December 3rd. If they win that game they will automatically qualify for a Bowl Championship Series Bowl game, which at this point looks to be the Sugar, Orange or Fiesta Bowls. If they lose versus Tulsa, not only will they not qualify for the championship game (as both teams head into Friday morning's game with an identical 7-0 conference record), but they fall from a potential BCS Bowl game to perhaps the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas, and no offense to the city but talk about a fall from grace.
First things first, however, as the Coogs face their hottest opponent of the season in Tulsa, who are led by Bill Blankenship, who is in his first year as head coach but has been with the program for four years overall as an assistant. He has coached multiple positions including running backs, wide receivers and special teams. For the previous 23 years before being hired by then head coach Todd Graham in 2007, Blankenship was a head coach at various Oklahoma high schools. His teams won over 200 games and had been to eight state championship games, winning three of them.
Tulsa started out the season by losing three of their first four games, at Oklahoma, home to Oklahoma State (in a game that ended past 3AM due to a severe storm) and at Boise State. The three teams were ranked 1st, 8th, and 4th in the polls respectively and beat Tulsa by an average score of 49-23. The Golden Hurricane has since rebounded - in their seven CUSA games they have dominated (much like the Cougars) in winning by an average score of 41-16. In the Cougars seven CUSA games they have won by an average score of 58-21. To say this is a game of the proverbial ‘irresistible force versus the immovable object' would be an understatement. Both offenses are first and second in CUSA action in scoring, total offense (Houston – 637, Tulsa – 504), and passing offense (Houston – 448, Tulsa – 283). Tulsa is also first in rushing offense (221 yards per game) with the Cougars ranking third (189).
Their offensive coordinator is Greg Peterson who is in his first year with Tulsa and is also the wide receivers coach. He brings 27 years of collegiate coaching experience and has the offense rolling (as the above stats indicate) just as former coordinator Chad Morris had during the 2010 season. Morris was a protégé of another former Tulsa OC ( and current Auburn offensive coordinator), Gus Malzahn. Tulsa's offense has changed under Peterson but has a lot of the same basic principles as it did under both Morris and Malzahn, which is to disguise the fact that they are a downhill power running team despite what may look like a typical finesse spread offense predicated on player motion out of the backfield. Tulsa's offense under Peterson relies less on motion which is meant to distract defenses from keying in on where the ball is going to go. His offense is predicated on power with physical athletic players such as quarter back GJ Kinne (225 pounds), running back Alex Singleton (250), H-Back Willie Carter (220), tight end Clay Sears (235) and wide receivers Bryan Burnham and Jordan James (both 205). Add in athletes at running back such as Trey Watts and Ja'Terrian Douglas and one could see why they have been so dominating. This multiple type of spread offense, which is based off of the quarterback read option game is exactly the type of offense that has given the Cougars problems in the past. They also rely less on the up-temp no huddle attacks of Morris and Malzahn's offenses. While they run plenty spread sets from the shotgun, their offense also wears defenses down physically via power isolation plays run out of pro-I style formations.
During the two past games between the teams (a 46-45 Cougars victory at Tulsa in 2009 and a 28-25 victory for Tulsa last hear in Houston), Kinne has completed a combined 39 of 56 passes for 488 yards with five TDs. He has also thrown a combined 4 interceptions, which has been Tulsa's main weakness this year. They have a turnover margin of minus twenty seven which is 81st in the nation. Creating turnovers should be the Cougars main emphasis if they wish to slow down Tulsa's efficient offense. The Cougars have forced 22 turnovers on the season including 14 interceptions, which is second in CUSA . Kinne has tossed 14 interceptions on the season with four of them coming versus Boise State. The former Texas transfer has completed 211 of his 321 passes for 2700 yards with 24 TDs passing for the season. His nearly sixty six percent completion rate suggests he is highly accurate with his passes, unlike a lot of the QBs the Coogs defense has faced this year. Last week versus SMU I noticed the Ponies QB (J.J. McDermott) overthrew quite a few of his receivers on deep routes in which the Mustangs wide receivers had a step on the Cougars defensive backs down the field. Corners Zach McMillian, Thomas Bates and stand out D.J. Hayden along with safeties Kent Brooks and Nick Saenz will have to avoid falling for the backfield motion and Tulsa's play-action game because Kinne has the accuracy to beat them deep. Hayden will especially have to read his keys as he likes to help out in run support.
The aforementioned receivers for Tulsa include Burnham (707 yards on 47 receptions with a team leading 8 TDs), and the speedster James (162, 11 – 14.7 per reception average), both of whom have the speed to burn the Cougars deep but the size and patience to find holes in the middle of the Cougars zone coverages. Tulsa's offense loves to find mismatches with their tight end (Sears) and particularly H-Back Willie Carter who is doing an excellent impersonation of former H-Back and current Miami Dolphin rookie Charles Clay. Carter leads the team with 826 yards on 57 receptions and 6 TDs. He also is used as a running back and has two TDs rushing to go with his five yard per carry average on twelve total carries. He sat out last Saturday's 57-28 victory at UTEP with a leg injury and is questionable for this game. His absence could be huge just as Zach Line's was last week for SMU. Both place immense physical pressure on the interior of opposing defenses with their physicality. The Cougars linebackers will have their hands full with both Sears and Carter as receivers, particularly Sam linebacker Phillip Steward whom has a team leading four interceptions. Those passes were picked off by Steward as he was covering an opposing slot receiver in the Cougars cover-2 zone scheme. Tulsa has accomplished all of this in their passing game even without last year's leading receiver and all purpose threat Damaris Johnson who was suspended before the season began.
Not only has Kinne shown he has the ability to beat the Cougars defense with his arm over the past two years, but also his feet as he has a combined 290 yards on 16 carries with 2 TDs including 190 in last year's Tulsa victory. The QB zone read has given the Cougars defenders problems all season and this game will probably be no different. Tulsa also runs multiple speed option and speed sweeps out of their base shotgun formations. When I asked Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin about the Cougars struggles defending the run (particularly the read option game)a few weeks ago he said, "A lot of it has to do with different mechanics for different blocking schemes. Its assignment oriented for the defense. If their were one blocking style it would be ok but the defense has different reads for different blocking schemes, similar to the veer." In other words, the offense adjusts to how the defense reacts. The Cougars linebackers are sometimes undisciplined in their run fits and that could hurt them in this game. If one defender tries to do something he's not supposed to Tulsa will rip a long gain in the running game. Tulsa's offense stresses opposing defenses by putting pressure on the perimeter as well. They have their own three headed monster at running back with the aforementioned Watts, Douglas and Singleton. Douglas is their leading rusher with 836 yards on only 100 carries, good for a 8.4 yards per carry average. The shifty Watts is the worker with 781 yards on 131 carries and Singleton is the team's short yardage and goal line runner with his team leading eight TDs. Coach Sumlin on how the Cougars defense has improved over the course of the season during today's media press conference, "We are in the second year in this system so we have benefited from that. We've got better players on the field. The college game is much different from the professional game. In the pros you will very rarely face a dual-threat quarterback like G.J Kinne. Our defensive coaches, coming from the NFL, have gotten better there. Going from 96th to 31st in scoring defense is significant."
Tulsa's offensive line averages 295 pounds per man and has four upperclassmen among their five starters. It will be interesting to see if David Hunter see's more time at the nose tackle spot in this game. With Hunter in at the nose, the defensive line will have more speed in trying to penetrate Tulsa's offensive line to counter the Hurricane's speed option portion of their running game. In most probable first down running situations, Dominic Miller will use his 300 plus pounds in order to slow down Tulsa's power running game. The Coogs rotation of defensive ends which include Kelvin King, Eric Braswell, and Zeke Hunter will be relied on to keep containment on Kinne as well. With the defensive line's one gap responsibilities (in which the defensive linemen are responsible for only one gap on either side of them) it will be up to inside linebackers Marcus McGraw and Derrick Mathews to clean up the "mess" on Tulsa's inside power runs. McGraw and Mathews are first and second on the team in tackles (105 and 82) for a reason – their anticipation and speed to the ball. Under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart McGraw has become more than a capable pass defender but his specialty is run blitzing. The freshman Mathews has surpassed everyone's expectations and can just line up and get the ball with as coach Sumlin said, "He takes a ton of pressure off the freshman since he makes all the calls for the defense."
Speaking of defense, Tulsa has switched from it's base 4-2-5 scheme under Graham to an attacking aggressive 4-3, under first year coordinator Brent Guy (whom has been an assistant at multiple schools out west, including head coach at Utah State from 2005-08). The Golden Hurricane is first in CUSA in scoring (16 points per game) and total defense (348). They are third in both rushing and passing defense (allowing 116 and 232 yards per game respectively). Their defense, with their line in particular, has great pursuit to the ball. They also put pressure on opposing offenses from different angles as they will blitz from any position including corner back, although they only have 21 sacks as a team with seven of those coming from defensive end Tyrunn Walker. The 6-foot-3 285 pounder also has 11.5 tackles for loss. He moves inside to a defensive tackle spot in their "Cobra" package as he can use his quickness to squeeze the A or B gaps (on either side of the center) in putting pressure on QBs up the middle, much like Hunter does for the Coogs. Their aggressiveness can also be their downfall as a defense as they can over pursue to the ball, leaving the backside open. This should be susceptible to the Cougars multiple running back and wide receiver screen games. Look for all three Cougar running backs to potentially have big games receiving wise. The Coogs own "three headed monster" at tailback have a combined 1,634 rushing yards with 24 TDs on the ground as well. Charles Sims has 702 rushing yards and nine rushing TDs, Michael Hayes is at 621 and eight and the senior Bryce Beall has 311 with seven rushing TDs. As stated, all three are also lethal as receivers coming out of the backfield with 425, 401 and 102 respective receiving yards and a combined seven receiving TDs.
The key to Tulsa's defense is mike (middle) linebacker Curnelius Arnick. His 134 total tackles are fifth in the nation and first in CUSA play. Much like the Cougars McGraw, he is the heart and soul of the Golden Hurricane's defense as he makes plays all over the field. Their other two linebackers, Shawn Jackson (will) and Alan Dock (cane- sam) also flow to the ball as their 79 and 59 tackles respectively indicate. Dexter McCoil plays the Bandit, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position which places him both close to the line of scrimmage in run support or out in space covering backs out of the backfield. He is effective in both as he is third on the defense in tackles with 67 and tied for first with four interceptions. Free safety Marco Nelson keys the backend of the Golden Hurricane's defense and has 58 tackles and two fumble recoveries. He sat out last week with an injury with true freshman Kwame Sexton replacing him. Sexton is not as physical as Nelson however and his status for the game is just as important as Carter's is for Tulsa's offense. Losing those two would have a huge impact on the game. Milton Howell will probably have the inalienable task of covering the nations fifth leading receiver in terms of yards per game (119.5) and second in TDs (14) in Cougars all everything receiver Patrick Edwards. Howell has four interceptions on the season. Blankenship said pressure is they key when trying to stop the NCAA's all time leader in passing yards (17,855), total yards (18,771), TDs thrown (145) and accounted for (168) in Case Keenum during Monday's media press conference via tulsahurricane.com , "What you have to do is you have to get pressure with your front people. We're going to bring blitzes and different looks. Everyone has done that. If we don't get pressure with the front people manned up in blocking, then he'll have plenty of time to throw if we're in coverage or not. You start with getting pressure and secondly you have to make him throw underneath and outside throws. You have to make him take harder throws and knock them down."
Tulsa's special teams have been both hot and cold during the season. Watts returned their first kickoff for a touchdown during the UTEP game and averages 24.8 yards per return. They have a horrible punt return game as their leader is JC transfer J.D. Ratliff with 35 total yards on only 8 returns. Watts also has 24 yards on 2 punt returns. Losing the NCAA's all time leader in all purpose yards (Johnson) before the season hurt the Hurricane as he was the team's leading punt returner. Their kicker is Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior is 12 of 14 on field goals and also has a 39.6 punt average on 10 punts. Freshman Cole Way averages 38 yards per punt on 34 total placing seven inside the 20. The Cougars have the edge in the return games with Tyron Carrier (24.4 yards per kick return), Edwards (14.5 average on 11 punt returns), the kicking game (Matt Hogan's 88 percent accuracy rate on field goals), and punting (Richie Leone averages 43.2 yards per punt placing eight inside the 20). Tulsa has the edge on blocked kicks as they have four – two a piece for Walker and fellow defensive end Cory Dorris.
The key to this game may come down to turnovers as they are so evenly matched in just about every important category other than turnover margin. Twice last week SMU was driving down the field during the third quarter in a closely contested game but could not score as the Cougars defense converted two turnovers (a Steward interception in the Coogs endzone and Kent Brooks fumble recovery) into ten points turning a close 13-0 game into an insurmountable 23-0 lead on their way to a 37-7 victory. This same season tested formula will give the Cougars a lead that will be the difference in the game in a battle between two of the top QBs in the nation with a last second Hogan field goal putting the Cougars over the top.Final prediction; Houston – 38Tulsa - 37