The Cougars will have to right a lot of wrongs in order to win this game. Texas State was predicted by many to finish in last place in the Western Athletic Conference, as opposed to the Bulldogs, who won the conference last season and are the pre-season favorites to repeat as champion, led by head coach Sonny Dykes.
In a shocking move, offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt resigned Monday and was replaced by running back coach Travis Bush. He will also assume play-calling duties and coach the quarter backs. Ken McClintock moves over to coach the running backs from his previous job as Director of Player Personnel. I say shocking because it’s unprecedented to replace an assistant coach after one game. Fans are suppose to act irrational when supporting their team (either positively or negatively), because that’s what we are – fanatics. Coaches however, are supposed to remain level-headed in their decision making. It’s said coaches aren’t suppose to get too high over the wins or too low over the losses. On the other hand, head coach Tony Levine felt there was a disconnect on the staff, and decided not to wait to make changes. Whether he was right or not we won’t know until the end of the season.
Levine on what to expect from the offense this Saturday against a tough Louisiana Tech defense (via uhcougars.com), “We are tweaking our offense. There will be some noticeable wrinkles, but also some that aren't. There will be some route adjustments to improve some concepts that we had. In that sense we are not completely scrapping what we've been doing. We literally might adjust angles or depth of routes and a couple things here and there. My philosophy is that players are more important than plays. Plays are overrated. We have to get the football into the guys’ hands who we know will make plays."
Bush, who is in his first season on the coaching staff, has been an offensive coordinator at his two previous stops (last season at Texas-San Antonio and the previous three at Texas State). Bush’s offenses have had success, but much like Nesbitt, that was on the FCS level. We won’t truly know what type of spin Bush plans on placing on this offense for at least a few games so patience will be a virtue.
Bush’s first order of business will be to help Cougars QB David Piland correct his many mistakes from this past Saturday’s loss versus Texas State. Piland looked shaky even in the early going when the score was close. On the Cougars first possession he both over and under threw his receivers in leading the team to a ‘three and out.’ As Levine explains, Bush’s main job will be making the game easier for the young QB, “Early on we didn't give him an opportunity to make some easy throws. He hasn't played a down of college football since November of 2010. I'm not making excuses for anyone, but I'm sure all the guys to some extent had some nerves going onto the field. We went three and out immediately, and then they took the lead. We got the ball back and still didn't have anything to where he could just relax, hand the ball off to Charles Sims, get some yards and get into the flow of the game. That never happened. We have identified guys who can make plays, now we just need to get the ball in their hands. We have to be creative in doing so. I have prided myself since I have been here on a creative and out-of-the-box style of play, and we are going to get back to that."
That’s easier said than done, however, against a stout Louisiana Tech defense, which finished 57nth in the nation last season, statistically speaking, allowing opponents only 377 total yards per game (or four better than the Cougars defense last season). They allowed 127 yards on the ground and 250 through the air while allowing opposing offenses to score only 23 points per game. This was a considerable improvement for a defense that finished the 2010 season ranked 116nth in the nation, allowing over 460 yards per game.
The Tech defense will have to replace 2011 WAC Defensive Player of the Year Adrien Cole at linebacker, but the entire secondary returns, including Jim Thorpe watch list candidate Chad Boyd. “The good thing is we’ve got five guys on the back end, five seniors who play that safety/nickel spot who have a lot of experience,” Tech defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler said, via the shreveporttimes.com. That group includes hard hitting strong safety Jamel Johnson (88 tackles last season with 2 interceptions), Boyd (76, 3 and 3 tackles for loss) at free safety, and Javontay Crowe and Craig Johnson at the nickel spots.
The Bulldogs also have a veteran front four returning as well, according to Spangler, “I’ve been doing this a long time and I do know this —you win up front at any level — college, pro, high school,” Spangler said. “Other than quarterback, I’m not sure there’s a more important position on the football team. With guys like IK (Enemkpali - who had 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season and will be starting at right end), Jon’al White, Justin Ellis (a mammoth 340 pound tackle), Shak Lucas (a 285 pounder opposite Ellis), Kendrick James (a quick 245 speed rusher along the edge much like the Coogs Lloyd Allen) - they’re all guys who have played a lot and who we’ve won games with. It’s good to know they’re back.”
It will be interesting to see what the Bulldogs defensive strategy will be versus a Cougars offense in transition, struggling to find its identity. Spangler’s 4-2-5 scheme allows much versatility in allowing his team to blitz from every conceivable angle while also being able to employ various zone looks in the secondary. Look for Spangler to blitz Piland and play press coverage against the Cougars young and inexperienced wide receivers. Coach Levine stated that the Cougars need to get back to the philosophy of getting the ball into their playmakers hands allowing them to make plays in space, “We need to identify who our playmakers are offensively, and there were some glimpses of that Saturday. Larry McDuffey, a true freshman, came in on his first college snap and caught a five yard pass and took it 59 yards on his own. Ryan Jackson was in for six snaps, touched the ball three times, and rushed for around 22 yards. We have identified guys who can make plays, now we just need to get the ball in their hands. We have to be creative in doing so. I have prided myself since I have been here on a creative and out-of-the-box style of play, and we are going to get back to that." Look for prized freshman receiver Deontay Greenberry to get more involved early on.
The Bulldogs strategy should be to press the young Cougars receivers forcing separation and make them actually make a play in space, before retreating into zone coverage. The Bobcats did a nice job employing that strategy last weekend and Tech should go with what works until the Cougars offense adjusts. Tech’s defense did a nice job for three quarters last season in holding Case Keenum and the Coogs offense to only 14 points, before the dam broke in allowing UH to score the final three touchdowns in the frenetic fourth quarter in the Cougars dramatic 35-34 victory. That loss still resonates in the minds of a few of the Bulldogs defenders, as Lucas mentioned during Tuesday’s Bulldogs weekly media press conference, via latechsports.com, “Sometimes it (last season’s game) comes up, but we do not try to dwell on the past. When you are a player you still think about how we had them up 34-7 and they came back in the fourth quarter just like that and we do not want that to happen again. We are planning on finishing this time around. We gave three good quarters but a game is four so we have to finish all four.”
The key, as always, will be the battle in the trenches as the Coogs re-worked offensive line must give Piland time to throw while also opening up running lanes for Sims. For reasons only the coaching staff knows, the staff decided to move Jacolby Ashworth (who started the past three seasons at left tackle) to right guard while moving last season’s starter at right tackle, Rowdy Harper, over to the left side. Ralph Oragwu moved into the starting lineup for the first time this season at right tackle while Kevin Forsch moves over from his right guard slot last season to center (taking over for departed senior Chris Thompson). Ty Cloud remains the only starter in his same spot from last season – at left guard.
As bad as the offense played last Saturday, the defense played almost as bad (for a half anyway) before making the necessary adjustments needed to win the game. Allowing 248 rushing yards to a run first team is unacceptable, especially when the defense knew what the Bobcats scheme was coming into the game. The defense will have to do a much better job at wrapping up when attempting a tackle, as many Texas State rushers ran right through would-be tackles. Many times the defense looked flat out confused as what their assignment was, looking to the sideline for defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant to clear things up for them. This needs to get fixed this week and I’m sure Bryant will, as he’s an old-school style coach who won’t put up with a lack of execution. Tech’s offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin, is a spread guru, who while probably looking to pass more this season, will definitely try to establish his teams’ running game in gashing the Cougars interior line, much like the Bobcats did last week. Again, if something works against a specific team – use that strategy until forced to do otherwise. Football is often a copy-cat game, strategically speaking.
Linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews led the way for the Coogs defense with 14 tackles a piece with Mathews sacking Bobcats QB, Shawn Rutherford, twice and Steward once. Former walk-on Chris Cermin flew around the field with reckless abandon while amassing his 13 tackles from his strong safety spot. The defense will face an experienced Louisiana Tech offense, led by redshirt senior Colby Cameron, who returns as the starter after passing for 1,667 yards and 13 touchdowns last year after taking over midway through last season for true freshman Nick Isham (who had a nice game against the Coogs last season). Isham ended up transferring this off-season. Dykes on Cameron, via latechsports.com, “I think he is going to have a great year. I think he has looked really, really sharp. I think his timing with the receivers is where we want it to be. They are on the same page. His decision-making this fall camp has really been good. He just has to go out and play like he has been practicing. That is going to be the key for him. If he does that he will have a heck of a year.”
Speaking of those receivers, one to keep an eye out for will be Quinton Patton, who was picked as the WAC preseason offensive player of the year. Nicknamed "The General," Patton totaled 79 catches for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns and is on the Biletnikoff Award "Watch List" for 2012. “I feel like (Patton) from Louisiana Tech is the best receiver I’ve played against since I’ve been here,” Mississippi State cornerback Jonathan Banks told ESPN.com last October. “I’ve gone against some good ones in the SEC, too, but he’s probably the most complete.” Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden will have his hands full and hopefully will play Patton in more press coverage rather than backing off 10 or so yards like many of the defensive backs did last week.
While top rusher Lennon Creer is gone, running back Hunter Lee returns after gaining 650 yards as a freshman walk-on. Their offensive line returns four out of five starters from last season led be Kevin Saia, who has started 28 consecutive games at left guard. Jordan Mills has started 17 consecutive games at right tackle while Stephen Warner is a former walk-on who is a pre-season first team WAC selection after starting 25 games. Rounding out the starting five is Oscar Johnson at left tackle and Matt Shepperd at right guard. Johnson moved to tackle during the spring after playing right guard last season while Shepperd is a first time starter. Johnson will be a load for whichever Cougar lines up across from him at 6-feet-6, 350 pounds. Tech is 15nth in the nation as the returning starters up front account for 92 starts.
With 2011 scoring leader (91 points) Matt Nelson back for a final season at placekicker, the Bulldogs are expected to have one of the top kicking games in the country, with Ryan Allen winning last season's 2011 Ray Guy Award for being the best punter in the nation. Allen led the country in punts inside the 10 and 20-yard lines last year while averaging 46.1 yards per attempt.
Overall Dykes likes his team, "We've got some talent and experience coming back and the hopes are high to have another successful season, but it's about producing on the field, not in the preseason polls. We've got the chance to have a good team. Now, it's a matter of going out and doing it."
The key to this game will have more to do with the players collective mind sets, rather than any X’s and O’s Bush may or may not adjust with just one practice week. As they say, ‘it’s not about the X’s and the O’s, but the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s.’ The offensive scheme won’t change, as the team has been working on it since January. There will be, however, slight adjustments as mentioned earlier – such as getting Sims the ball more often.
Regardless, the team will have to look inward to cure the ills of last week as Coach Levine mentioned, “Our focus is more on us than our opponent." Even Coach Dykes doesn’t expect too many wholesale changes; “I think we’re going to see the same thing. That’s all you can assume. They’ve been practicing what they’re doing since the spring. You’ve got to assume that’s what we’re going to see on Saturday. We’ll adjust and prepare if we see something different.”
Dykes on how to stop the Cougars offense, “What he have to do is tackle well. When they get the ball in open spaces, we have to make sure to get the guy down. We have to play good fundamental football and make sure we are in the right place at the right time. We have to make sure we do not bust any coverage’s or anything up front to create running lanes for them. All those things are going to be important. It is going to be about our execution as much as it is theirs.”
Dykes on his team playing in their first game versus the Cougars playing their second on the season, “I think first games are strange. You just do not ever know what is going to happen, good or bad, just because there are a lot of unknowns. How is this guy going to react to that? How is it all going to come together? You just do not know. The biggest thing is how are the players, coaching staff and team going to deal with adversity? You are going to have some. That is always the biggest questions you have to answer with any football team is how are we going to handle if things do not go our way. You never really know. Every team is different. We handled that well last year. This is a different team. That team was different with different leaders, different dynamics, different everything. How are we going to handle those situations this year? That remains to be seen. The good thing is we are not relying on too many new players. I think that speaks highly of our depth and our football program, because this is a really good freshman class. The fact that our returning guys were able to hold a lot of them off speaks to how much they have improved and the depth in our program. I think we’ll see a better Houston team. They’re going to know what they need to improve on.”
As far as adversity goes, the Cougars are dealing with a lot of their own this week and how they deal with it will determine how successful this season will be. As a famous anonymous quote says, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”