Conference USA Championship Game

The Houston Cougars are one victory away from their first ever BCS Bowl game in school history as they host Conference USA nemesis and Eastern Division Champion - the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Game time is set for 11AM (CST) and will be televised nationally on ABC.

The winner of this game will also be the 2011 Conference USA champion. With a victory, it will be the Cougars third CUSA championship, winning the inaugural CUSA championship with a thrilling 56-49 overtime victory over this same USM team way back in 1996, behind quarter back Chuck Clements, running backs Antowain Smith and Ketric Sanford and defensive end Adriano Belli. Smith would win a Super Bowl in 2001 with the New England Patriots and Belli a Grey Cup the next year with the Montreal Alouettes. Sanford is the Coogs all time leading rusher with 3,636 yards (with current RB Bryce Beall second with 3,098 yards). They also beat Southern Miss again in 2006 by the score of 34-20 behind current Arizona Cardinals signal caller Kevin Kolb. That explosive team also featured current Kansas City Chief RB Jackie Battle and Tennessee Titan wideout Donnie Avery.

The Southern Mississippi Brett Fahv-rah's (If you didn't follow that, no it's not a mispronunciation, go watch "There's Something About Mary" and you'll get it) lead the all time series between the two universities eight games to five and have been high flying action packed affairs and I don't expect this game to be any different. This current edition Southern Miss team isn't too much different than the 1996 and 2006 teams that were defined by hard nosed physicality on both sides of the ball. Their head coach is Larry Fedora who, like his counterpart (Coogs head man Kevin Sumlin), is in his 4th year. Fedora has a 32-25 record in those four years but has gradually improved the program as his team's win-loss records were an identical 7-6 in both 2008 and 09 before an 8-5 season in 2009 followed by this season's current 10-2 mark that has seen the team reach the BCS rankings as they are currently ranked 24th. Sumlin's record in the same span is 35-16 as the Cougars are currently undefeated (12-0) for the first time in team history and are ranked 6th in the latest BCS standings. The two offensive minded head coaches (Sumlin was an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Texas A&M while Fedora was OC at Oklahoma State and Florida during the early 2000s) are 1-1 versus one another as head coaches. The Coogs won 50-43 in 2009 at the Rob on a last second 28 yard touchdown pass from Keenum (who threw for 559 yards) to Patrick Edwards (surprise). Last year in Hattiesburg, Southern Miss gained revenge in winning by a not-so-close final score of 59-21 outscoring the Coogs 35-21 in the second half. The two teams have combined for almost 2,500 yards in both games (2,491).

This seasons Southern Miss team is a complete team that finds ways to win in all three phases of the game. They are third in CUSA in both scoring offense (34.9) and defense (20.5). Their offense averages 478 yards in their conference games with 208 of those yards coming on the ground. They allow a league low 323.6 yards per game defensively with 90 of those via opposing ground games and 234 through the air. Special teams wise - they have an All-American field goal kicker, their return games are solid and they have blocked four kicks. Their defense and special teams also find ways to score as the two units have a combined eleven TDs returned (seven on interceptions alone) between them, which is phenomenal.

The Golden Eagles offense is similar to the offense the Coogs saw last week (at Tulsa) in philosophy as they want to establish their physical superiority over the opposing defense via a downhill running game out of multiple spread formations. They like to vary the pace of the game depending on the game situation and can either slow it down by going to a huddle or speed it up with a hurry up no huddle. Their offense also will look to the side line a lot to give their offensive coordinator, Blake Anderson, time to adjust to what opposing defenses are doing. Anderson (who played receiver and quarter back at both Baylor and Sam Houston State in the late 1980s and early 90s) is in his fourth year as the Golden Eagles OC. This is, however, his second year calling the plays. Fedora was the play caller the two previous seasons but thought that he cold better serve the team if he delegated more responsibilities to his coaching staff. This, in turn, freed up more of his time to handle all of the duties that being a head coach entails, especially paying more attention to his defense. This philosophy has served him well as his 18-7 record over the past two season attests.

The most important player on every winning team is the quarter back, and USM is no different. Their QB is Austin Davis, whom is third in the conference in passing yards per game with 260 yards per game and has completed 251 of his 401 passes on the season for 3.052 yards and has 24 TDs passing. He is a veteran whom Anderson trusts to put the offense into the right play but can also force the ball, as he also has 10 interceptions (something I'm sure Cougars defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and his staff are game planning for). The fourth year senior has passed for 10,448 career yards along with 77 career TD passes. He has also rushed for 285 yards on the season. USM's offense does feature some zone read option plays and if the Cougars linebackers try to over pursue (on the plethora of Golden Eagles running backs), Austin can and will pull the ball and run either up the middle or to the weak side as he did last year versus the Coogs. In that game Austin rushed for 111 yards on 17 carries with 4 TDs. He "only" has four rushing TDs this year in twelve games but he will use the Cougars aggressive defense against them if they do not fill in on their correct run fits (meaning each gap between the offensive linemen are accounted for). For his career, he has rushed for over 1,300 yards and has 25 TDs on the ground (second in team history).The fourth year senior is 28-15 as a starter.

As with the Cougars offense, Southern Miss employs a running back by committee approach to running the ball, as they have six backs (including their QB) averaging between 20 and 85 yards per game leading to their nearly conference leading 208 yards per game. Their ‘flavor of the month' seems to be redshirt freshman Jamal Woodyard. The 5-foot-8 200 pounder has rushed for 653 yards on 102 carries with 3 TDs. He likes to use his size (or lack thereof) to hide behind his offensive line before finding holes to run through. His 6.4 yard per rush average leads the running backs. Tracey Lampley is another scat back type and is third on the team with 379 yards on 70 total carries. The 5-foot-9 168 pounder also has 3 TDs rushing. Jeremy Hester has 299 yards on the ground but has not been playing as much lately as one of the two leading rushers to begin the season (Desmond Johnson) is back. Johnson rushed for over 100 yards in last week's win versus Memphis and has 289 yards (and a 5.9 yard per carry average) in only five games. Kendrick Hardy was averaging a team best 85 yards per game before hurting a knee. He has missed the past seven games but Cougar fans won't be disappointed as he had over 200 yards in last season's victory. Lampley, whom has a combined 40 yards, is the only other Southern Miss back to carry the ball against the Coogs over the past two seasons besides Hardy and Davis. Along with the aforementioned five backs you can't forget about Davis, who leads the team with his four rushing TDs as the QB.

As with their rushers, the Golden Eagles like to spread out the receptions among the receivers so opposing defenses can't key in on one athlete. If USM has a go-to receiver it would be Ryan Balentine. The 6-foot-1 175 pound senior has totaled 718 yards on 46 receptions with 7 TDs receiving. Right behind him at 641 yards and 6 TDs is Kelvin Bolden. The 6-foot 160 pounder has speed on top of speed but is precise in his route running as the two veterans are coming into their own this season. The team's third leading receiver is the diminutive Lampley with his 37 receptions for 424 yards coming out of the backfield. Dominque Sullivan is a physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds and is the team's possession receiver.

As with any efficient offense the offensive line has as much to do with success as any of the skill players and USM's line play is no different. They average nearly 310 pounds per man led by starting left tackle Lamar Holmes and his massive 333 pounds. Right tackle Darius Barnes tips the scales in at 329. The team entered the season with only 39 combined starts among the five (whom have started all season long) but have really jelled over the course of the season. They have only allowed 15 sacks for the season, opposed to the Cougars 14.

Defensively for the Cougars, Stewart will have to call a game much like he did last week at Tulsa as he varied his looks. With each possession against Tulsa's offense, the Cougars second year defensive coordinator would alter his play calling as he had the defense going after quarter back GJ Kinne on blitz's from different angles with man coverage in the secondary, only on the next possession to go back to pressure with only a three or four man front with the back seven playing a cover-2 zone look. They key is not to give a veteran QB (like Davis) the same kinds of looks over and over, as a good QB can dissect a stagnant defense.

Look for Cougars will line backer Sammy Brown (with George Bamfo in a back up role) to try to take advantage of a speed advantage he will have over the Golden Eagles massive tackle (Holmes). Brown's 26 tackles for loss lead the nation and his 12.5 sacks are third. As last week, if the Cougars can contain the Southern Miss run game (especially on first down) they can be successful. The Cougars third down percentage of 37.57 (45th in the nation) is a massive improvement from last season's 49.43 (which was 117th).

In fact, the overall success of the team in large part is due to the overall improvement of the defense. Coach Sumlin commented on this during today's weekly media press conference, "We had some goals going into this year of what we had to do defensively to be successful. Some of those factors to improve were third-down defense and scoring defense and getting better at quarterback-run defense. We paid attention to that and you can see a big difference. The first game we had seven new guys on the field. You just have to look at the numbers from 30th in the country in scoring defense as opposed to 96th a year ago. That is a dramatic improvement. There are a number of players that have been coached and understand what is going on in the scheme. There are also a number of players that have really improved throughout the season. Our defensive staff has been doing a great job. What we do offensively, total defense is never going to be the mark. It is going to be third-down defense and points allowed. I saw the confidence factor increase. We got some great leadership, especially from our linebackers. The other thing is that we have been able to rotate more. There is more depth in the front and secondary. We didn't have any depth before then. We are able to rotate our defensive lineman more and able to keep them fresh. Everything has been a change for the positive. What we were looking for going from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was getting more athletes on the field." Coach Sumlin also mentioned linebackers Phillip Steward (team leading four interceptions) and true freshman Derrick Mathews (89 total tackles which place him second behind Marcus McGraw's 120), along with corners DJ Hayden and Zach McMillian as keys as to why the pass defense has improved. He also said that having Hayden allowed the Coogs defense to play different types of coverage.

Coach Sumlin on his defense stopping Southern Miss this week: "It will be another great challenge for our defense. There will be some carry over from Tulsa. We had to face more quarterback run game. Perimeter and speed-wise they are a step above Tulsa. They will have a good scheme and are well coached."

Defensively the key for the Golden Eagles to stop the Cougars is, well, there is no way to stop this offense, realistically. Just as opposing teams trying to stop Michael Jordan back in the 90s (luckily for him they never met Dream and the Rockets) the only real hope is to pray that the team miss-fires and has an off day. Co-offensive coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips have been great all season at adapting to what opposing defenses are trying to do to stop them, and counter attack. If teams load the box and play man coverage, Cougar all-everything quarter back Case Keenum (an NCAA leading 4,726 passing yards with 43 TDs passing and only 3 interceptions), receivers Patrick Edwards (1,496 receiving yards and 18 TDs), Tyron Carrier (873 yards on 83 receptions), and Justin Johnson (910 and 9 TDs) basically play pitch-and-catch up and down the field to the tune of an NCAA leading 52.7 points per game based on an unreal passing average of nearly 450 yards per game.

Pressure Keenum with only three or four man fronts and play various types of zone defenses against this offense and Kingsbury has given Keenum the ability to check to running the ball right at opposing defenses with their one-back down hill power running attack led by Michael Hayes, Charles Sims and Bryce Beall. Sims leads the team with 760 yards on only 90 attempts, good for a 7.9 yard per carry average. Hayes totes the rock for a physical 657 yards and both have nine TDs on the ground. Beall has only 311 yards during an injury plagued season but is third all time in school history rushing wise, as indicated earlier.

Throw any kind of exotic type blitzes at Keenum and he uses that aggression via the many miss direction screens the team uses to get the aforementioned running backs in space, mainly against linebackers or safeties in ugly mismatches. Both Sims and Hayes have four TDs receiving on the season and are fourth and fifth on the team in receiving yards with 476 and 445 respectively. Even when an occasional blitz does get to Keenum, he has shown an incredible knack for making a play with his feet. Multiple times on the year he Heisman candidate has shed what appeared to be certain sacks, only to give his receivers enough time to find an open seam where not only would Keenum get them the ball, but get it to them where they could run after the catch – creating the type of explosive plays this offense relies on to be successful.

Having said all of that, for the sake of this article I'll breakdown the Golden Eagles defense for you faithful Coogfans readers. Their defense is led by first year defensive coordinator Dan Disch who is a nearly 30 year high school and college coaching veteran (spending many of them coaching high school ball in Florida before spending the previous six years at Illinois). He has installed a 4-2-5 scheme in order to get more speed on the field, basically replacing a bigger slower linebacker with a nickelback or what they term the "Bandit" which is a hybrid linebacker/safety (they previously ran a base 4-3). This ‘Bandit' position was made for an athletic freak like junior Jamie Collins. The 6-foot-3 240 pounder was a safety before moving to a linebacker spot last year. They play him close to the line of scrimmage a lot as he has 5.5 sacks and a team leading 17.5 tackles for loss among his 85 total tackles (which is second on the team). First on the team in both sacks (6.5) and second in tackles for loss (15) is all-CUSA defensive end Cordarro Law. The 260 pound rush end leads an active front four that mixes speed (Collins), power (290 pound nose tackle Terrance Pope) and athleticism (Law).

The Golden Eagles defense is great at gang tackling and creating turnovers in which they turn into scores. Their leading tackler is will linebacker Ronnie Thornton with 90. Boundary safety (safety who plays the shorter side of the field) Jacorius Cotton is their third leading tackler with 84. A "game changer" in their secondary is field corner Marquese Wheaton. He'll usually man up on the opposing offenses best wide receiver so look for him to match up against Edwards mainly. The senior has three interceptions (two of which have been returned for a TD) and a fumble recover returned 75 yards for a TD as well. Boundary corner Deron Wilson also has three interceptions, two of which have been returned for TDs and field safety Kendrick Presley has returned an interception 100 yards for a TD as well. As you can plainly see the term "ball hawking" describes this defense to a tee. All of this has been accomplished without defensive captain, linebacker Korey Williams who has missed most of the year (playing only the first four games) due to injury. Their recent defensive play has reincarnated the days of the "Nasty Bunch," of the early 1970's/early 80's much like the Cougars recent defensive play is reminding Coog fans of the "Mad dog" defenses of the same time (headlined by former Lombardi Award winner Wilson Whitley).

Southern Miss special team's play has been a key factor in their overall team success this season as well. All American kicker Danny Hrapman has been successful on 22 of 30 field goals this season. The fifth year senior has converted 50 of his 65 career attempts so the team will lean on him for a late game winning kick if necessary, just as the Cougars will rely on Matt Hogan (whom is 36 for 41 for his career including 10 of 12 this season). Hrapman also has 13 touchbacks. The Cougars have not relied on Hogan as much as they have been scoring TDs inside the redzone (opponent's 20 yard line) at a great rate. The Coogs 70.77 TD percentage rate inside the redzone (46 TDs in 65 scoring opportunities) is 14th best in the nation, as compared to USM's 54 percent (27 TDs in 50 attempts), placing them at 95th nationally. Punter Peter Boehme averages 42.6 yards per punt and has placed 9 inside the 20. Tracy Lampley is averaging 12.2 yards per return on punts (including one TD) and 21.7 on kickoff returns.

The Cougars have had a pretty successful formula for winning this season. Early on the offense digests what opposing defenses are doing to try to stop them. The offensive staff adjusts the game plan accordingly and has been able to get huge leads by the middle of the third quarters of their past seven games. The defensive game plan thereafter becomes pretty simple – go get the quarter back. As coach Stewart told me earlier this season, "We're a high pressure defense. Once you go up big you can pin your ears back and go after the QB." They've accomplished this to a tee this season as their plus one turnover margin suggests. Their turnover margin is tied for 7th nationally, much better than Southern Mississippi's minus .8 which is 65th nationally. While Southern Miss has created a lot of turnovers (they have 16 interceptions just as the Cougars), they have fumbled 15 times on offense (tied for 109th). If the Cougars can pry a few balls from the grasps of the Golden Eagles backs (or receivers), this game will get ugly. Ultimately the Cougars offense has been pretty unstoppable this season while their defense has been opportunistic, and I don't see anything changing for Saturday's game. The only thing that might inhibit the Cougars could be their own emotions, but I doubt this as well as Keenum mentioned this during today's media presser, "We've done a good job of just keeping the same mindset the past few weeks. The next few weeks are riding on this week. We've had a good mindset focusing on the task at hand and that's the same thing for this week. This is where you want to be. This is why you play football. Playing big time football games against big time football teams. It's pretty exciting. This is why we do it."

Because of this team mindset, the Cougars roll to a BCS Bowl. Final prediction – Cougars-52 Golden Eagles-24

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