The Coogs will be facing the Penn State Nittany Lions on Monday January 2nd at the old Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. Game time is set for 11AM (CST) and will be broadcast on ESPNU.
My job here on Coogfans is game analysis, not to analyze or interpret the head of the Cougars leader, Kevin Sumlin. In my analysis, I don't think the rumors of the head coach leaving to take another job (at Texas A&M or elsewhere) had anything to do with how the team played on Saturday. Coach Sumlin has even denied talking to any school. Of course he has never mentioned whether or not his agent has. I don't have "inside sources" as many do (thanks to the internet) so I won't speculate on whether or not the man will be coaching for the Coogs next year. I do believe, however (with as much that was on the line for the Coogs), that Southern Miss was more motivated to play than the Cougars were. USM head coach Larry Fedora even said as much during his post game press conference, via Southernmiss.com, "Nobody gave us a chance, nobody thought we could win. Last night we were coming back from the movie and we were on the bus watching the MAC Championship. There was a commercial that ran down the conference championship games and the last one was the Conference USA Championship and then they talked about Houston and they never even mentioned us, they never mentioned who Houston was playing. Everybody thought Houston was going to walk away with this thing and our guys took objection to that. They had something to prove, they are going to play with a chip on their shoulder, and they wanted everybody to know that this is a good football team." This kind of motivation goes a long way, especially to young men who play with a chip on their shoulders a lot anyway.
The Eagles showed that motivation in dominating a dominating fashion as the Cougars were outplayed and outcoached on Saturday afternoon. You could tell the players (on both sides) had nerves early on as both offenses went ‘3 & out' on their first offensive possessions. Even Cougars quarterback Case Keenum showed his nerves early as his first pass of the day gained no yards on a "swing pass" to running back Charles Sims out of the backfield. The Cougars speedster had to stop in order to catch the ball not allowing him to gain the YAC (yards after catch) yardage that this offense depends on to be successful. Usually the Cougar backs are able to catch these swing passes on the run allowing them to either cut back or speed through the first hole that allows them to gain major yardage. The fact that Sims caught ten balls (for only 69 yards) showed that the passing lanes were well covered by the Golden Eagles back seven (or eight) most of the day. Fellow back Michael Hayes caught six passes for only 27 yards (or a 4.5 yard per catch average). Sims had one reception for 31 yards while his other nine were for only 38 yards, or a 4.2 yard per reception average. On the season both backs had been averaging more than a first down per reception (Sims at 13.2 yards and Hayes at 12). They were not able to outrun the Southern Miss athletes on defense. Keenum's third pass of the day was a post route that was overthrown by a yard or two to receiver Justin Johnson. It just seemed that Keenum was either too high or too low with many of his passes on the day, mainly due to the attacking and physical USM defense. Having said that, the man is not a robot and still deserves to be at least invited to the Heisman ceremony, in my opinion. During Saturday's game he added yet another record to his rather impressive list as he became the first NCAA QB to ever have passed for over 5,000 yards in three different seasons. He now has 5,099 yards on the season, along with 5,020 yards for the 2008 season and an amazing 5,671 yards during the 09 season. He now has 18,685 career passing yards and 152 passing TDs.
While Keenum completed 41 of his 67 passes for 373 yards with two touchdowns, he also had two interceptions (he had three the entire season entering play). He was also sacked twice as he faced relentless pressure from the Golden Eagles defensive line most of the day. This pressure was from a mostly three or four man front lead by defensive end Cordarrow Law and an end/linebacker combo the Eagles call their Bandit position, which was played by athletic freak Jamie Collins. Law and Collins each had a sack along with two tackles for loss among their combined thirteen tackles. If Law or Collins weren't making plays along the line, will linebacker Ronnie Thornton was there to clean up the mess in USM's 4-2-5 defense. Collins had 14 tackles and an interception returned for a TD making the score 49-21 that was the final nail in the coffin. Eagles defensive coordinator Dan Disch had a simple yet effective game plan versus the Cougars explosive offense. Pressure the Coogs offensive line with their base four defensive linemen (and sometimes three), forcing Keenum to pass into zone coverages. The Eagles defense allowed only two plays of more than twenty yards the entire game. The Cougars had 25 plays of 20 or more yards entering play on Saturday. Not only does USM's defense have athletes on the interior, but in the secondary as well. Corner backs Deron Wilson and Marquese Wheaton pretty much locked up Cougars record setting receivers, Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards, most of the game. Edwards had only five receptions for 28 yards while Carrier had four for 41. Of course it didn't help that Carrier dropped three catchable passes along with Johnson's aforementioned drop leaving at least 14 points off the board that could have changed the entire complexion of the game. With those two early scores the Coogs could have dictated the pace of the game, instead of the other way around. The pressure of Southern Miss's defensive front also caused the Cougars offense to fall behind on down and distance. Many of their first down plays, whether they were run or pass, were not successful causing many second or third and long plays. On the game the Cougars were one for eleven downs of third and eight or more. Entering play the Cougars completed almost 55 percent of their third downs, the key being many of them were third and short because they were successful on first and second downs.
With Southern Miss dropped back in various zone defenses, the corners were also sitting on many of the routes the Cougars receivers rely on to move the chains. One example of this was a play early in the third from the Eagles one yard line. Keenum's "back shoulder fade" pass, which was intended for Edwards, was predicted and intercepted by Wilson in the end zone. Thornton's later interception was swiped as he was playing a "robber" position, in which he just drops back in the middle of the field and reads the QBs eyes. The interception was the Golden Eagles eighth "pick six" on the season which is an NCAA record. The one Cougars receiver who had any success on the day was Johnson, whom had 12 receptions for 171 yards and two TDs. His hard nosed aggressiveness from his slot position will be sorely missed next season. Simply stated, USM's linebackers and defensive backs would not allow Keenum and the Cougars offense the short passes in which they completed the entire season with success. While sitting on these routes, the Eagles defense tackled well and allowed no yards after the catch while sitting back just enough to also not allow the deep post routes the Cougars offense usually executes for huge yardage. Basically I think for the first time this season the Coogs were "out-athleted" both on the interior of both lines and in the back seven (USM's DB's versus the Coogs receivers and backs).
While it seemed the Cougar receivers were locked up most of the day, the running game wasn't having any success either. On the day the team ran for only 48 yards on 31 carries which was a season low. Hayes gained 50 yards (including two TDs) on 15 carries while Sims had 35 and 9 respectively. Keenum is allowed to audible to a run play if he see's there are only three or four men "in the box" and the Cougars were still unable to establish a running game. As the game got out of hand, starting in the middle of the third quarter, the run game had to be abandoned for the pass in order to catch up. While this offense (led by co-offensive coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips) is a version of the famed ‘airraid' and is based on a pass first philosophy, anytime Keenum attempts as many passes as he did on Saturday afternoon(67), the Cougars generally lose. Simply put, the Cougars much praised (and deservedly so) offensive line (consisting of left tackle Jacolby Ashworth, left guard Ty Cloud, center Chris Thompson, right guard Kevin Forsch and right tackle Rowdy Harper) were outperformed by the aforementioned Law, Collins, and interior tackles Terrance Pope and Deddrick Jones.
As out of sync as the offense looked, the defense was just as bad thanks to a balanced attack by Southern Miss and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson. The Eagles, unlike the Coogs, were able to establish their running game early behind backs Tracy Lampley, Deron Johnson and Jamal Woodyard, and QB Austin Davis. Lampley was their leading rusher with 71 yards on 14 carries. Johnson had 61 on 10 with Woodyard gaining 47 yards on his 9 rushing attempts. Davis gained 47 yards on his nine carries; many on QB read plays up the middle or option plays on the outside, which seemed to bring back the old Cougars defense from earlier in the season in which they seemed confused in their run fit assignments. Many times during the game, the Cougars line backers would over run their assigned lanes and lose containment which allowed huge yardage for the Eagles quartet of backs. The Golden Eagles rushed for 207 yards on 39 carries.
No Cougar defender stood out but Marcus McGraw (whom had 11 tackles on the day) now has an even 500 for his career, eight short of setting the Cougars all time tackles record. If the Coogs had won maybe Phillip Steward would have been the player of the game. His team leading fifth interception of the season came plays after the disastrous Keenum interception in the endzone. He returned a tipped pass (courtesy of McGraw) 25 yards to the USM four yard line. One play later Hayes would score, bringing the Cougars to within 28-21 midway through the third. The next series for USM was when I knew the Cougars were in trouble, as they allowed the Eagles to methodically march down the field as they rushed on eight of the eleven plays for 76 yards, whether it was Lampley or Johnson on outside zone runs or Davis up the middle as Cougar defenders misjudged which Golden Eagle had the ball on the QB/RB mesh. When Johnson bounced outside for a 17 yard TD (making the score 35-21 Golden Eagles with barely four minutes left in the third) it was apparent the Cougars defensive front was no match for Southern Miss's O-line.
The game was all but over after yet another "3 & out" by the Coogs offense (they had a season high five on the game), followed by a 61 yard TD reception by Lampley on the Eagles next offensive series. Lampley's reception came on a simple "wheel route," giving Southern Miss a 42-21 with barely a minute left in the third. Whether it was Steward or fellow linebacker Derrick Mathews, they simply lost Lampley twice on scores on the same wheel route – in which he simply runs out of the backfield while Davis leads the defense to the opposite side with his eyes only to pass back to an uncovered Lampley down the field. On the day, Davis completed 17 of his 33 passes for 279 yards with four passing TDs. On two of those TDs the Cougars secondary did not tackle well. On Southern Miss's first score safety Nick Saenz missed a tackle allowing receiver Ryan Balentine to run the final five yards into the endzone on third and fourteen. After it seemed the Cougars had gained momentum later in the game after tying the score at 14, cornerback DJ Hayden missed a rare tackle on a ‘skinny post' route to receiver Dominque Sullivan, allowing him to scamper 69 yards for a TD as Southern Miss retook the lead 21-14. The Cougars would not regain the lead the rest of the day. Lampley was the Eagles leading receiver as he gained 125 yards and two TDs on his six receptions
The Cougars could not pressure Davis most of the day with their front four consisting of defensive ends David Hunter, Eric Braswell, Zeke Riser, Kelvin King, Lloyd Allen and nose tackles Dominic Miller, Austin Lunsford and Joey Mbu. Will, or rush, backer Sammy Brown did not dominate as he usually does as well (although he had 2 more tackles for loss adding to his national leading 28). If Cougars defensive coordinator Brian Stewart wanted pressure on Davis, he had to send at least a fifth man, causing holes to open up down field in which the Cougars defensive backs could not cover.
Not to be outdone by the offense or defense, the Cougars special teams also contributed to this ugly loss. Punter Richie Leone only averaged 34.9 yards on his seven punts, with his first three covering only 25, 20 and 20 giving the Eagles the ball around midfield on average on their first four offensive possessions. Of course he was kicking into a sometimes strong wind so that certainly didn't help. The biggest play of the game might have come from the Golden Eagles special teams unit as diminutive defensive back Furious Bradley hustled to recover his own blocked punt and return it eleven yards for a TD giving the Eagles a 28-14 lead early in the third quarter. While Carrier had one nice 36 yard kickoff return in which he almost broke what would have been an NCAA record eight kickoffs returned for TD, the Cougars return games were null and void, as were Southern Miss's for the most part.
In all, while the game was a stinker the season was still great. Two of the Cougars team captains, JJ (Justin Johnson) and McGraw summed it up best during the postgame via uhcougars.com.
Johnson, "It's a disappointment but we've got one more game to play. We don't know where that's going to be, but we're going to regroup and move forward. There is a bright future here at the University of Houston, and the young guys are ready for that."
And McGraw, "We had a great season. We didn't finish the way we wanted to, but when you look at all we've done we've had a great season. We set the bar high for the younger guys and for people coming into this program. It's disappointing but there's always an upside to it."
In my twenty years as a fan, employee (three years working for the athletic department as a student videographer), and Coogfans reporter this has been the most fun I've had watching this team play and I not only look forward to the ‘Ticket City Bowl' but the future as well.