The domination of the Golden Hurricane in the latter stages of the game came as no surprise as the Coogs have outscored their opponents 328 to 112 in second halves this season of their combined twelve opponents. Defensively, however, is where the Coogs stepped up their game in not allowing Tulsa to do what they wanted to; by physical by running the ball downhill. As Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship said during his post game press conference via the houstonchronicle.com, "We felt like we could continue to find a way through, and we just kept pounding the rock and didn't quite break it so that got us a little out of sync when we weren't able to successfully run the football as much as we wanted to."
Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin on his defense this year, "Last year the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was difficult because of the personnel and Brian Stewart (the Coogs defensive coordinator) coming in from the NFL where there was no quarter back running game. He never saw that before but shored that up with some off-season studies and the addition of a few new coaches (namely defensive line coach Carlton Hall and linebackers coach Jamie Bryant)." Stewart definitely does not want the defense getting too full of them selves just yet as you can tell when he said, "We're still a work in progress. We have another game in the championship. I think you have to be the champion to call yourself the champion."
Of course the defensive game plan for the Cougars was influenced by what the offense accomplished (as it has been all season). The Coogs followed their blue print of success to a tee; early in the game the offense took what opposing defenses would give them. Tulsa decided to rush only four while dropping seven in coverage while mixing in an occasional blitz. This gave the Cougars room to run, with which they accomplished with little success early on. Thereafter they would adjust by finding holes in Tulsa's zone and open it up. Once the game started getting out of hand score wise, Stewart's defense could then ratchet up the pressure knowing Tulsa would have to predominately pass the ball in order to get back into the game.
Offensively, Case Keenum was the man once again. He completed 33 of 46 passes for 457 yards with 5 touchdowns passing. For the season he is now 342 for 467 for 4,726 yards with 43 TDs passing with only 3 interceptions. Most coaches would take a 3-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio. Keenum's is an unbelievable 14-to-1, as is his 73 percent completion percentage. Most coaches strive for 65 percent while attempting anywhere between 25 to 35 passes per game (depending on the style of offense). Keenum attempts nearly 40 passes per game. He now holds NCAA FBS all time records for total passing yards (18,312); total yards (19,212); TDs thrown (150) TDs responsible (173), and most 300 plus passing yard games (37), most seasons with 4,000 yards passing (currently tied with former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell with three). With 274 more passing yards he will lead the NCAA with the most 5,000 passing yard seasons with three as well. If all of that were not enough he is now 36-13 as a starter in his Cougars career. As I've said before, if the man isn't at least invited to the Heisman ceremony in New York City in the second weekend of December, the award is a farce.
As always, without talent surrounding him no QB can succeed and this was once again the case (no pun intended) at Tulsa. Once again receiver Patrick Edwards stole the show as he caught eight of Keenum's passes for 181 yards and four TDs. For the season, the former walk-on now has 74 receptions for 1,496 yards and 18 TDs receiving. His 20.2 yard per catch average is second in the nation while his 18 receiving TDs are first. His first TD of the game should have counted as a rushing attempt as he appeared to score on a "speed sweep" (when a receiver receives a quick handoff from the QB after motioning from one side of the formation into the backfield). Tyron Carrier caught 9 passes for 68 tough yards on the day. Most of them were over the middle of the field as he found holes in Tulsa's zone and were to extend drives, much as he has done over the course of the season. Despite Edward's numbers, it is Carrier who is actually the team leader in receptions for the season with 83 (for 873 yards and 5 TDs). Also, with his 307 career catches (for 3,408 yards) he is now the C-USA's career receptions leader. The fourth year senior along with Edwards (whom has 4,251 career receiving yards and 41 TDs) will go down in Cougars history as two of the best receivers ever. Another receiver is less heralded but none the less important slot man Justin Johnson. The 6-foot-1, 225 pound fifth year senior had 106 yards on his 7 receptions including 1 TD on the day. For the season he has accumulated 910 yards on 63 receptions as he gives the Cougars offense another tough minded receiver who loves to catch slant routes knowing he is going to get ‘clocked' by opposing linebackers and safeties over the middle of the field. He also alleviates pressure from both Edwards and Carrier with his clutch play.
The Cougars running game didn't produce on Friday as much as it had been for the season; rushing for only 84 net yards on 33 total carries (while averaging nearly 180 per game entering play). Of course they also played a tough Tulsa defense which led CUSA in total defense and was third in rushing defense before play began (at 348 and 116 respectively). Tulsa's strong interior front stopped running backs Michael Hayes, Charles Sims, and Bryce Beall for the most part particularly on first down. Hayes rushed for 36 yards with Sims contributing 48 (both on 12 carries). Meanwhile Beall did not attempt to rush and caught only one pass for five yards as once the passing game got on track rushes were at a minimum. Both Sims and Hayes each caught four passes out of the backfield, mainly via swing passes or various screens which thwarted Tulsa's defensive line's aggression in their pass rush for the most part. Sims gained 51 yards on his catches while Hayes gained 44 yards on his.
Defensively the Cougars played a great game. Early on it appeared as if Tulsa might be able to establish their running game as running backs Trey Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas, and QB GJ Kinne were able to get 4 to 5 yards on nearly every first down play. These came via their pro style I-formation down hill and various QB read option formations. The Cougars adjusted by bringing an extra man in the box (mainly mike inside linebacker Marcus McGraw), forcing Tulsa to beat the Cougars with their passing game – which they clearly could not do. To steal an ESPN phrase, McGraw was simply a ‘manimal' in the game as he had 15 total tackles (including 3 for loss). On the season, the four year defensive captain has 120 total tackles with 12 TFL. With 18 more tackles he will become UH's all time leading tackler as he currently has 489 for his career. Fellow linebackers Derrick Mathews and Phillip Steward also had nice games, particularly in coverage against tough matchups in Tulsa's H-Back Willie Carter and tight end Clay Sears. One particular play in which Mathews showed his wear withal was early in the 4th quarter when he intercepted a Kinne pass as he jumped a route in front of Carter. Tulsa's lethal H-back had only 42 yards receiving on the day with Sears having 33. Outside will (or rush) backer Sammy Brown had a subpar day as he only had 5 tackles with none for loss and no sacks. He still leads the Coogs (and the nation) with 26 TFL and 12.5 sacks. Tulsa did a nice job of nullifying his fierce pass rush skills by running away from him and getting the ball out quickly when passing.
The secondary did an outstanding job in coverage as Stewart had the Coogs playing in more man-to-man coverage than their usual cover-2 zone scheme. Corner backs DJ Hayden and Zach McMillian were more than effective as they were "out on an island" in one on one matchups against Tulsa's wide receivers as the defense had to commit one or more safeties in stopping Tulsa's run game. Those safeties, Kent Brooks and Nick Saenz were both all over the field making plays for the defense. Two of the plays that changed the game came from the aforementioned and much maligned safeties. Early in the 2nd quarter, with Tulsa looking to add to their 10-6 lead on a 4th and inches inside the Cougars red zone (eighteen yard line), Saenz interjected himself into Tulsa's offensive line, knocking massive 250 pound running back Alex Singleton back for a loss giving the Cougars back the ball without Tulsa scoring any points. The other play occurred just before halftime as Brooks forced a fumble from Tulsa receiver Bryan Burnham in which Hayden recovered. This was also inside the Cougars red zone (at the ten) as the Cougars would escape the first half with a narrow 13-6 lead in which the offense could not get on track.
Tulsa only rushed for 50 yards in the second half (161 for the game) as many of the physical inside runs that were effective early on were stopped for a minimal gain. The credit should go to the Cougars defensive front lead by nose tackle Dominic Miller and defensive ends David Hunter and Eric Braswell. One of the main differences in this year's defense from years past is depth, especially along the line as ends Kelvin King, Zeke Riser, Lloyd Allen, and tackle Austin Lunsford have all contributed mightily at one point during the season.
The special teams were a wash as whichever team was kicking with the wind at their backs had the advantage for the quarter. Disappointing to see was kicker Matt Hogan's streak of consecutive PAT's (point after touchdowns) come to an end at 79 as his first PAT was blocked. Punter Richie Leone averaged only 36 yards on his 6 punts but many of them were into the wind. Edwards had a nice game in the return game as he had 45 yards on 3 punt returns. Carrier had 55 yards on 2 kickoff returns as he is still tied for the NCAA all time lead with former Clemson back CJ Spiller with 7 kickoff returns for TD. Kicker Jordan Mannisto had two touchbacks on his six kickoffs and Tulsa only averaged 22 yards per kickoff return.
Coaching was what impressed me most in this C-USA Western division clinching game. Two plays in particular emphasized this; the first came while leading by the slimmest of leads (13-10) early in the third. The Cougars offense faced a fourth and nine at the Tulsa 33 yard line. A 50 yard field goal was probably out of the question with the wind factor so conventional wisdom says to punt the ball and pin Tulsa inside their own ten yard line – making them drive with a longer field to work with. Not this coaching staff, co-offensive coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips showed the upmost confidence in their unit and let Keenum and the offense do their thing. A shallow crossing pattern and 33 yards later, Patrick Edwards was in the endzone and the team was celebrating a 20-10 lead that would give the defense some breathing room. The second decision came a few minutes later with the Cougars now facing a fourth and one at Tulsa's 36 yard line, with the Coogs now leading 20-16. While the call to go for it on fourth and one was not a surprise as the offense was once again in "no mans land" – too long for a field goal attempt yet too short to punt, the play call was. On fourth and one, Hayes motions out of the backfield and Keenum lofts a beautifully thrown ball to Edwards once again on a post route. With zero safety help (as Tulsa loaded the box assuming a power run) Keenum noticed Edwards was one on one with Tulsa corner Milton Howell. The veteran corner was no match for Edwards and soon thereafter the Coogs were celebrating an insurmountable 27-16 lead. The crowd at H.A Chapman stadium was in shock and all of the momentum the Golden Hurricanes had quickly evaporated. It is this kind of aggressive coaching that gives the entire team an air of confidence that has been invaluable in becoming the 8th ranked team (after starting the season unranked) and one win away from a BCS bowl game.