Coach Levine’s thoughts now that it’s finally game week, “I’m excited, the staff’s excited, but I think more than anything the players are the most excited. We’ve had three weeks of them going against each other every day in practice and I think this will be true for any team in the country, Texas State as well – we’re all looking forward to going against someone else besides team mates and room mates,” he said early Monday afternoon via a Conference USA football Coaches teleconference.
Levine on his team being ready for the game, “I feel good about this team. We’ve gone over three or four game simulations in the stadium as we’ve tried to get the jitters out ahead of time for Saturday night. It’ll be fun but anytime you’re talking about 18 and 19 years olds you’re not always 100 percent sure of what they’re gonna do but we’ll see here within a couple of days.”
As for the Cougars actual opponent, the Texas State Bobcats begin their first season in FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) play as members of the Western Athletic Conference (before moving to the Sun Belt next year). The Bobcats lost four of their final six games to finish up last season with a 6-6 record. They are coached by Dennis Franchione who is entering his third season in San Marcos and is 10-13. Technically he is 23-22 with Texas State as he coached them during the 1990 and 91 seasons when they were known as Southwest Texas State and played in division II which is known today as FCS (Football Championship Subdivision).
Coach Levine on the Bobcats and Franchione, “I think they’re an excellent program and it’s two-fold. 1.) They’re coaching staff; I’ve known Coach ‘Fran’ a long time and he’s been extremely successful at a number of different stops and his staff is going on their second year now. They have a bunch of assistants that are extremely well regarded in the coaching profession and have been with him at different places before so it’s a staff that knows one another and I’d say a veteran staff in terms of experience. 2.) Just about their entire team returns so it will be a tremendous challenge for us.”
Led by second year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, the Bobcats employ the type of offense that usually gives the Cougars defenses trouble over the years in the ‘spread option’ rushing scheme. In averaging 25.5 points per game they averaged 195 yards per game last season while passing for around 150 yards (or about a quarter’s worth for Case Keenum, or so it seemed). Among their seven returning starters on offense is their quarter back, Shaun Rutherford (although no starter at QB has been named as of this writing). The 6-foot, 187 pounder from Blinn JC (via Bay City) started eight games last season and completed nearly 58 percent of his passes while averaging 112 yards per game through the air. He was careful with the ball in throwing only 4 interceptions while tossing for 12 touch downs. His back up (last season) is the injury prone Tyler Arndt. The 6-foot-4 225 pounder out of Cuero is known more as a pure pocket passer yet he only threw for an average of 72 yards per game while completing only 51 percent of his passes, showing his inconsistency. Arndt did start the game two seasons ago versus the Coogs as a true freshman in the Bobcats 68-28 loss. He kept that game relatively close (20-7 after the first quarter) and finished completing 14 of his 22 passes for 153 yards and a TD to go along with two rushing TDs. Injuries have kept him from gaining a stronghold on the starters position while Rutherford, who backed up Cam Newton on Blinn JC’s national championship team two seasons ago, has shown more poise under center while also showing better decision making ability when leading their ‘read option’ game. Rutherford is definitely more of a dual threat under center as he averaged nearly 40 yards per game on the ground last season compared to Arndt’s paltry 12.
Coach Levine on preparing for defending two quarter backs, “it doesn’t affect our coaching as much because I think at times you look at coaches and you know they’re going to do what they do, so I think we have a good feel, at least on video, of what Coach Franchione’s philosophy is going to be regardless of who’s under center. I think if it’s a brand new staff then sometimes you don’t know what they’re going to do but regardless of who their QB is, that hasn’t affected our preparation at all.”
The strength of their rushing game would be in their two backs, Marcus Curry and Terrence Franks. Curry, a senior who at 5’11, 210 pounds is a solid downhill runner and also runs nice routes out of the backfield while the sophomore Franks is more elusive at 5’10, 194 pounds. The two combined to rush for 1,500 yards and 12 TDs in 2011.
Levine’s overall thoughts on their rushing game, “Their running game is as good and as intricate as any in the country. The QB runs the ‘read option’ and then Curry and Franks are kind of the one, two option in no specific order so it’s something we’ve (as a staff) talked about going back to fall camp and spring ball. Defensively, you have to play your gaps. They have all kinds of formations and motions and after they lull you to sleep with their run game they’ll go play-action and throw one over your head for a TD.”
If I can recall correctly, many a team last season (including Louisiana Tech and North Texas) gave the young Cougars defense trouble early on in games as the motions and various formations seemed to confuse the defensive front seven, before finally adjusting in the second halves of games.
Catching those bombs off of play-action that Levine spoke of will be receivers Isaiah Battle, Andy Erickson Jafus Gaines and Brandon Smith (the latter two being freshmen), along with tight end Chase Harper. Battle and Harper are their two leading returning receivers with Battle bringing his 368 yards back on 27 receptions to go along with 5 TDs and Harper 287 and 20 respectively. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds Harper is a matchup problem with smaller safeties or bigger linebackers trying to cover him in the slot. This sounds like a job for Cougars linebacker Phillip Steward (as he provided thorough coverage on many tight ends and slot receivers last season while intercepting six passes). Even Coach Levine was impressed with Harper as he said, “Harper’s one of the best tight ends in the country so we’ll have our hands full.” Erickson, who was a Rice transfer last season, has impresses during spring and fall camp and at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds is showing a reputation for being a tough slot receiver.
The hugest mismatches in this game might occur along both lines, unfortunately for the Bobcats. They return only two starters along the offensive line in strong side tackle Thaddeus Watkins and center Charlie Tuttle. The Bobcats only average 285 pounds per man across the line. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars front four handles the Bobcats o-line, and how defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant employs various blitzes.
Defensively, the Bobcats run an aggressive 4-2-5 scheme led by second year defensive coordinator and safeties coach Craig Naivar (who coached at Rice for the four previous seasons). As previously stated, although the Bobcats return three starters along the front four (plus converted starting linebacker Joplo Bartu at rush end), they only average about 265 pounds between Bartu and Thomas Evans (250) at end with DeShun Williams (299) and Kamu Taulelei (276) inside at tackle. Bartu had 4 sacks last season and is the leading returning sack master as the ‘Cats try to replace Michael Ebbitt and his 11.5 sacks at one end spot. Williams is the ‘run stopper’ and had 6.5 tackles for loss last season.
That defensive line should be no match against the Cougars front five of Jacolby Ashworth (and his 300 plus pounds at left tackle), Ty Cloud (335 at LG), Kevin Forsch (308 at center), Ralph Oragwu (318 at RG) and Rowdy Harper (300 at RT) who average a stout 312 pounds per man across the line. As they say, the game is won in the trenches.
At linebacker, redshirt freshman Joshua Robinson and his athletic 5-foot-11, 235 pound frame has been flying around making plays all over the field while JC transfers David Mayo (228 pounds) and Damion McMiller (230), along with freshman Jerrid Jeter-Gilmon (222) all have the size to more than make up for the smallish front four, and have all spent a considerable amount of time with the first and second strings on defense late in fall camp.
The strength of this defense is at secondary as their top three tacklers return in safeties Xavier Daniels (77) and Aaron Mathews (65) along with top cover corner Daryl Morris (62). At 6-foot, 168 pounds, Daniels is a terrific tackler in the open field and a hard hitter for his size while Morris hits just as hard but is not small (6-foot-4, 208 pounds). All three are ball hawks as well as Daniels had three interceptions on the season with Mathews picking off two and Morris one. Morris, much like Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden is excellent at reading plays, defeating his block and making a tackle of a running back as he also had 6 tackles for loss and 3 interceptions. Craig Mager is the other corner and with 13 passes defended last season, many consider him to be the teams shut down corner. The Rover, or weak safety, will be manned by Jason Mclean. While only 5’11 and 195 pounds the linebacker/safety hybrid hits much harder than many would anticipate. Last season he had 42 tackles (2.5 for loss), three QB hurries, one interception and one forced fumble and is another shore tackler among many in the secondary. Overall their defense seemed to be feast or famine as they allowed many big plays, which is not good when you’re going against a team that runs the ‘Air Raid’ scheme. They allowed an average of 164 yards on the ground and 235 through the air for a total of 399 yards while allowing opponents to score nearly 29 points per game on them.
Coach Levine on the Bobcats defense, “I’m very familiar with Craig Naivar and their staff and they do a fantastic job. They’re extremely aggressive in their scheme and how they call it. They’re a physical football team and they’re as sound as anybody we’ll play all year so they’ll make you earn every yard that you’re going to get offensively so we have to take care of the ball, make good decisions at the QB position and do what we do – move the chains.”
The wild card, as always, could be special teams, as coach once again says, “Coach Fran’s son (Brad) is their special teams’ coordinator and he’s been around a long time. It doesn’t take long to put their video on and see how well coached they are and how well they play. If you have a minute as a head coach and you want to see how hard your opponent plays, just put on their field goal block and kickoff tape. For Texas State in 2011 you’ll see 11 guys running extremely hard to the ball on every snap.” As for that wild card, kicker Will Johnson missed 8 of his last 12 field goals last season, although he has a very strong leg.
Levine on facing Texas State again and if they can get anything (strategy wise) out of that 68-28 victory two seasons ago, “Not really. They are a completely different team, personnel wise, coaching wise and when you put the video up they were a different team last season (from two years ago) so schematically they are completely different.”
Levine on whether or not his team may be over looking Texas State, considering the Coogs are a 36.5 favorite and have two upcoming opponents (Louisiana Tech and UCLA) that gave them near defeats last season, “No, I don’t sense that (that we’re overlooking the Bobcats) at all. We don’t talk about, per se – we don’t talk about we have to respect this or that opponent. We respect ALL of our opponents so I haven’t seen that (overconfidence) at all and I don’t expect to see that. I’m telling you how I feel – I coached there for three years in the late 90s and I’ve known Coach Fran a long time and we tried to recruit a number of players that are playing at Texas State. This is a quality quality program and a great football team and what we told the team is that this is the most important game of the season because it’s the first game of the season.”
It will be difficult to read this team early in the season. Even though Levine isn’t new to the players, he is new as their head coach. Also, the team will have to adjust to new coordinators on both sides of the ball (the aforementioned Bryant and offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt) calling the plays. This isn’t even to mention all of the senior leadership that needs to be replaced. Athletes such as Keenum, Edwards, Carrier, Johnson, Beall, Hayes, Thompson, Hunter, McGraw, Brown and Saenz aren’t easily replaceable, on or off the field. This team needs to establish its own identity under this new regime.
The team will want to come out early and show the nation (and critics) that they are indeed, NOT the ‘one trick pony or one hit wonder’ that Levine has mentioned numerous times to the media, over the off-season, of what the perception of this team may be without the graduated players no longer a part of the program.
Look for Coogs QB David Piland to hook up early and often with his receivers (whom are too many to name) as the Coogs up-tempo no huddle version of the ‘Air Raid’ will be too much to handle for the Bobcats athletes in the secondary. Once up by a few TDs, look for the Coogs massive o-line to wear down the smaller d-line of the Bobcats while trying to sit on their lead late. That’s when Charles Sims and Kenneth Farrow take over. Defensively, after a slow start trying to contain the confusing ‘read option’ rushing game, the Coogs athletes (paging weakside line backer Derrick Mathews) in the back seven will be too quick to block leading to many tackles for loss and stalled drives.
Prediction – After perhaps a bit of a slow start due to ‘first game jitters,’ the Coogs continue their trend of overwhelming their opponents, (especially in the second half as they outscored their opponents after half time last season 342 to 140. That 202 second half point differential was second in the nation only to LSU’s 203) in welcoming the Bobcats to ‘big boy football’ with a 45-17 victory.