A Magical Season on the Bayou

The 19th ranked Houston Cougars capped off their greatest season (record wise) in school and Conference USA history (13-1) by defeated the 22nd ranked Penn State Nittany Lions 30-14 Monday afternoon in the TicketCity Bowl at the historic Cotton Bowl before an announced crowd of 46,817.

The game was not as close as the final score indicated as the Coogs executed their game plans almost to perfection while dominating the Lions both offensively and defensively.

The Penn State coaching staff made the first mistake of the day after winning the coin toss, by deferring to receive the kickoff to the start of the second half. Penn State's game plan entering the game was twofold; Control the tempo of the game by moving the chains via their supposed potent running game on offense, which would 1.) Wear out the smaller Cougars defense and, 2.) Keep the ball away from the Cougars top ranked offense. The plan to give the Cougars the ball first backfired, as the Lions allowed the Cougars to dictate the pace of the game on their very first possession. Penn State head coach Tom Bradley on his decision via uhcougars.com, "I elected to kick to show confidence in the defense. If we won the toss, I thought long about it. I thought our defense would set the tone a little bit and get them off. If you get off on the first third down, might be a different game."

On that first series, after two incompletions on what could be blamed on rust (with 30 days off since their last game), Cougars quarterback Case Keenum avoided Penn State's feared pass rush by doing what he's done so many times over his storied career; he masterfully stepped up into the pocket to buy his receivers more time to get open down field – which is exactly what receiver Patrick Edwards did in catching the ball on a post route, good for 39 yards. Three plays later Keenum again hit Edwards on yet another post, this reception good for 40 yards and a touch down (coming on one of the few Penn State blitzes). The 7-0 lead gave the Cougars the momentum (and confidence) they needed as they would never look back in shredding the Lions soft cover 2 zone as the Coogs scored on three of their first four possessions in taking a 17-0 lead before the first quarter ended. The Cougars outgained the Lions 236 to 17 in total yards for the quarter. Bradley on the slow start, "We were trying to survive the first quarter. We didn't survive it. The other things, two big plays, we had them trapped in the first series in the scramble, he jumped up on us. Two big plays after that, the long touchdown passes kind of put us in a bind. We knew he was going to get his yards. Excellent passing attack. Obviously he got a lot of yards today."

As I stated in my game preview piece, the Cougars pass/rush ratio would be key in determining how successful the offense would perform. With confidence in the ability of their base four man front to pressure Keenum with little blitzing, Penn State wanted the Cougars to run the ball more than they were comfortable with, but the Cougars offense didn't bite. Keenum and the offense came out firing on all cylinders with the short quick passing game as Penn State played back in soft zone coverage (as the Lions secondary tried to keep everything in front of them) with little success. Twenty five of the first twenty six play calls for Houston's offense were passes (and 46 total in the first half to only four run plays), as the Cougars game plan on offense was to spread out the Penn State secondary to see if they could tackle in space. The answer was a resounding "No" as the old saying goes, ‘you can't coach speed.' Penn State entered the game allowing only 162 passing yards per game yet Case shredded them for 227 yards in the first quarter alone. This quick passing game plan also stymied Penn State's pass rush led by All-American defensive tackle Devon Still. Cougars head coach Tony Levine on the Cougars offensive game plan, "We felt like, very similar to how we attacked Oklahoma State in 2009, UCLA in the opening game, we were going to try to make them go sideline to sideline and play with our tempo, play with our speed, play with our little fast guys, get them the ball in space, try to go up and down the field throwing the ball to set up the run. Once they loosened up a little bit, bumped guys out of the box, we kind of picked our times to then run the football. Really a great job by not only our offensive staff but our defensive staff and Case executing the game plan."

For the game, Case completed 45 of his 69 passes for an astonishing 532 yards to go along with three TDs passing. For his career Keenum has set FBS records for passing yards (19,217), total yards (20,114), passing TDs (155), TDs responsible for (176), 300 yard passing games (39), and he is now 37-14 as a starter over his six year career. He, along with the other 16 seniors will truly be missed along Cullen Boulevard. On a side note, watching Case lead the band in the playing of the universities fight song after the game reminded me again of why I love this game so much. "I saw somebody do that three or four years ago. It looked like fun. It was fun," Keenum said about the moment via the houstonchronicle.com.

What's impressed me the most on Keenum's ability over the course of his career (along with his pocket presence) is his ability to accurately throw the deep ball (which was said to be the weak point in his game at the beginning of the season). The recipient of many of these bombs in the vertical passing game was the aforementioned Edwards, whom had 228 yards on his 10 receptions (including two TDs on post routes of 40 and 75 yards). For the season Edwards has accumulated 1,752 yards on 89 catches and 20 TDs. For his career the former walk-on has over 4,500 career yards on 291 receptions and 43 receiving TDs. Tyron Carrier caught 9 passes for 44 yards before leaving in the second quarter with an apparent serious knee injury and has 3,493 career receiving yards on 320 catches with 22 TDs receiving. The most improved receiver this season has been slot receiver Justin Johnson, whom had 148 yards on 12 catches with one TD against Penn State. For the season the physical former H-back has 1,229 receiving yards and 12 TD receptions, many of them on skinny posts and curls over the middle. A glimpse of the future was shown after Carrier left with his injury as little used Ronnie Williams had 6 receptions for 58 yards on the game.

As Coach Levine stated earlier, once Penn State ‘loosened up the box a bit' offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury decided to run the ball a tad, mainly in the second half to run the clock. They rushed only 16 times the entire game for an effective 68 yards (after Keenum lost 15 yards on two sacks in which he intentionally slid for a loss instead of taking a hit). The Coogs ran the ball only four times in the first half though. Both Michael Hayes and Charles Sims combined for 59 yards on 8 carries (though Hayes had another one of those "wow" moments (Google his run versus UCLA for the first),in which he did a cartwheel to avoid a would-be tackler. Bryce Beall did not rush again as both he and Hayes have run out of eligibility. Beall has finished third all time in rushing in Cougar history with his 3,098 yards.

Defensively, the Cougars game plan was made easier when Bradley announced days earlier that Lions starting QB, Matt McGloin, would not start due to concussion symptoms suffered from a fight with team mate Curtis Drake (who also did not play) weeks earlier during bowl practice. This left the talented yet inconsistent Rob Bolden as the starter, and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart had the Coogs defense pounce on the sophomore from the start by loading the box and making Penn State beat them over the top with the passing game. As Coach Levine stated, "I'm a big believer you're going to stop what you're opponent likes to do. If they're going to beat you, they're going to beat you in a different way. We talked about it as a staff, if they beat us; they're going to beat us throwing the football, not running the football." By using this approach, the Coogs defense forced Penn State's offense into six "3 & outs" in their eight first half possessions. The Lions rushed for a decent 169 yards on the game, but only 60 in the first half when the game was decided.

The usual suspects for the stellar defensive display were starting linebackers Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw, Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews. Brown had one sack and two tackles for loss for season totals of 13.5 and 30 respectively (which lead the nation). McGraw once again led the way in tackles in his final game with ten to give him a season total of 141 and a career total of 510 (which is tops in Coogs history). Steward intercepted his team leading sixth pass of the season while Mathews (the freshman sensation) added nine tackles and has 106 on the season which is second on the team to McGraw.

In the secondary cornerback D.J. Hayden once again played lock down defense as he was all over the field as his two tackles for loss and one sack showed. He (along with Mathews) dropped interceptions that surely would have been a "pick six." Strong safety Kent Brooks ‘laid the wood' to anyone who dare crossed the middle of the Cougars defense quite a few times as he played in the box more so than usual with the erratic armed Bolden at QB. Bolden did show he has a decent enough arm with the deep ball but his receivers dropped too many passes for the Cougars to honor his arm strength by playing their typical ‘cover 2' zone defense. Free safety Nick Saenz had a nice game in his final game as a Cougar with two interceptions. Bolden was intercepted three times as he completed only 7 of his 26 attempts for 137 yards with one TD as he was pressured most of the day.

The Coogs defensive line, led by ends David Hunter, Eric Braswell and nose guard Dominic Miller played a physical game and held up well at the line of scrimmage against a typical mauling Big 10 offensive line. Penn State all Big10 running back Silas Redd was held to 55 yards on 14 carries while Stephfon Green carried the rock 15 times for 65 yards. Receiver Bill Belton had 38 yards on 6 carries as he ran the ball a few times in ‘wildcat' formations while Bolden chipped in with 16 yards (after losing 17 on sacks) on 6 carries (many were free lanced in order to avoid the Cougars strong pass rush).

The one part of the Cougars game that was just ok was special teams play, ironically enough led by coach Levine. It could have been much better grade if not for a horrible effort in tackling Penn State receiver Justin Brown midway through the second quarter on what would have been a 92 yard punt return for a TD if he had not stepped out of bounds at their 33 yard line (giving him "only" a 26 yard return). In all the Cougars allowed 47 yards on 3 punt returns and 117 yards on 6 kickoff returns (good for a 19.3 average) as kicker Jordan Mannisto had only one touchback on seven kickoffs. Punter Richie Leone, however, was back to his normal self as he punted six times for a 42.5 yard average but more importantly, placed four of those punts inside Penn State's 20 yard line. The Cougars return game was nothing worth writing home about, save for one Carrier kickoff return for 39 yards in which he almost broke the final tackle that would have allowed him to set the FBS record for kickoff returns for TD (which he is currently tied with at seven with former Clemson back C.J. Spiller).

All in all, this was a solid win against a BCS affiliated opponent and while the current Bowl system may be watered down somewhat compared to yesteryear, playing on New Year's day (Ok, technically the day after New Year's) still means something. It's also amazing what a little concentration can do for a team. Unlike their last game (in which two dropped passes that might have gone for TDs and would have given them a 14-0 lead versus Southern Miss in the C-USA championship game and would have changed the game completely), the Cougars fast start enabled them to relax and dictate the pace of the game.

I'm also looking forward to next season under Coach Levine even though the coaching staff is currently in upheaval. Coach Kingsbury has taken a job at Texas A&M while co-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips is "currently exploring other options," all according to the Houston Chronicle. Other staff members, such as strength & conditioning coach Larry Jackson and offensive line coach BJ Anderson are also to have been mentioned joining Kingsbury at A&M as early as the end of the week.

The hiring of the next offensive coordinator won't be as important, in my opinion, as keeping Coach Stewart as the defensive coordinator. The Coogs 3-4 scheme is complicated and takes a few years for the players to learn. While I believe Coach Levine can find a good enough coach to continue the success on the offensive side of the ball, continuity is the key in helping to improve the defense as the Cougars look towards a league championship in the final season in C-USA before heading to the Big East for the 2013 season.

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