Game 2 Recap - A Season in Transition

Through two games, one thing you can NOT accuse the 2012 Houston Cougars of being is a boring football team. The Cougars lost their second straight game 56-49 to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs before an announced crowd of 29,142 at Robertson Stadium Saturday night to start the season with an 0-2 record for the first time since 2004.

This is a game in which the team really had no reason being competitive in (because of the many mental errors), yet they were one yard shy of getting the ball back with just under 35 seconds left around midfield with a chance to tie the game. After a 13 yard touchdown pass from David Piland to Deontay Greenberry brought the Coogs to within a touchdown, they lined up for an onsides kick. Kicker Richie Leone placed the ball beautifully between two defenders of the Bulldog hands team, but receiver Daniel Spencer touched the ball at the Cougars 44 yard line. NCAA rules stipulate the ball must travel ten yards before the kicking team can touch it, thus giving the ball back to the Bulldogs, thus ending the Cougars hopes of a magical comeback against this same team for the second straight season. Unlike last year’s Cougars however, when they came back from a 34-7 deficit near the end of the third quarter, this year’s version doesn’t have the veteran leadership to overcome such obstacles.

Like last year’s game, the Coogs began this game with a plethora of miscues and sloppy football in giving the Bulldogs a 21-6 lead before beginning to play Cougar football. Between the penalties (15 for 138 yards), turnovers (two), and basic lack of fundamentals (poor tackling and receivers dropping balls) – it was a miracle they were even in this game in the first place. This basic lack of fundamental football goes on the football staff. For whatever reason there seems to be a disconnect between head coach Tony Levine and his players. This shouldn’t be surprising however, since Levine seems to not even be on the same page with his coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt resigned this past Monday with running backs coach Travis Bush taking his place.

With a new offensive coordinator calling plays, the offense finally found some rhythm Saturday night as they amassed 693 total yards of offense including 580 passing as they resembled last year’s prolific version of the ‘Air Raid’ that put up record numbers. Ironically, this offense isn’t a pure version of the Air Raid under Bush, as it could probably be termed as more of a ‘multiple offense’ type of scheme. The Cougars began the game in a diamond formation (three running backs surrounding Piland from the shotgun), and even used a Wild Cat (or  Wild Sims) formation in which running back Charles Sims took a snap directly out of the shotgun. While some of these formations might not be familiar to Cougar fans, what was familiar was the offense using misdirection (to confuse the defense) as they ran their no huddle up tempo style of offense in amassing an astounding 693 total yards of offense on 115 plays (which ties an NCAA record). Piland completed 53 of his 77 attempts (another record) for 580 yards passing with four TDs and ZERO interceptions. Of course he threw what should have been an interception on the Cougars first offensive possession of the game when he hit Tech’s safety right in the stomach, only to have him drop it. That safety would fit in well with the Coogs receivers, who dropped around 10 passes and a sure touchdown when the ball went right through Mark Roberts’s hands midway through the third quarter. That drop on a post route was one of many game changing plays. If Roberts would have caught that pass the Coogs could have possibly tied the game at 28 (with a two point conversion). Instead, the drive stalled a few plays later when Piland threw an incompletion (off of his back foot) giving Tech the ball at their 42. The Bulldogs would drive right through the Cougars Swiss cheese defense (more on them in a bit) and score again, giving them a 35-20 lead, killing the momentum UH had built up over the second quarter in getting to within a point (21-20) after trailing 21-6 early on. Of course you can’t pass for 580 yards in a game without the receivers doing their part, and many of the receivers stepped up to the plate. Dewayne Peace led the receivers in yards with 141 on 11 catches with one TD. Sims also caught 11 passes (many on the swing routes that were so familiar in last year’s offense) for 53 yards. Daniel Spencer caught seven balls but led the team with 157 yards (also with a TD). Ronnie Williams caught seven passes for 68 yards (32 of those coming on what technically is a catch but just as easily could have been called a run as it came on a jet-sweep in which Piland basically pitched it to Williams as he ran in motion across the formation from the left side). Darian Lazard and Chance Blackmon finally caught passes as well with Lazard catching two for 14 yards and Blackmon one for 8.

As a part of this transition season, many underclassmen will play – including quite a few receivers, among them – Deontay Greenberry, Andrew Rodriquez, Larry McDuffy and Ryan Jackson (who is technically a running back but will line up in the slot as Sims does). Greenberry had five receptions for 34 yards with the aforementioned TD but still seems to not be on the same page as his QB as many of the passes are either too low, high, or don’t hit the athletic freshman (from Fresno, California) in stride – allowing him to turn shorter receptions into longer gains. This is something that Case Keenum was so great at and what last year’s offense was based on a lot last season – turning simple pass plays into long gainers. One example of this came in the middle of the third quarter when Spencer took a simple inside slant at the Cougars 26 yard line and turned it into a 74 yard TD because Piland hit him right in stride, and the Bulldogs had no safety help over the top to help out the corner playing Spencer. Last season’s slot receivers – Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson made a living at these types of routes. This is only the second game of the season though, so Piland will improve as the year progresses. Rodriquez caught his first pass as a Cougar totaling for five total for 82 yards and has a very nice future trying to emulate the cat quick Carrier from the slot. McDuffy did not play this game sitting it out with a hamstring pull, but showed last week that he can be a playmaker as well as his 64 TD reception (on a slant over the middle) versus Texas State attests.

 Rushing wise the Cougars did just ok, totaling 113 yards (after subtracting 34 yards on two Piland sacks) on 52 carries for a meager three yard per carry average. The team has totaled only 114 yards per game through two games this season. This scheme never has emphasized the run, but under the Sumlin regime they did run more last year than in years past (with a 55/45 pass run ratio). It’s easy to run between the tackles when you have backs such as Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall however, and those two aren’t walking through that door.  Although Sims is no longer a prototypical ‘scat back’ (at 215 pounds) he’s not use to shouldering the load. He carried the rock a career high 21 times Saturday night for only 65 yards, with most of those coming outside the tackles in the Coogs outside zone blocking scheme. There weren’t too many yards between the tackles versus the stout La Tech defensive front four. Jackson carried the ball seven times for 23 yards with Kenneth Farrow totaling 20 yards on just four carries. Farrow seems best suited to carry between the tackles but the Cougars have to stay competitive in games as it’s easier to run when you want (as an offense) instead of being dictated to by the defense. As with the receivers, the rushing game is in good hands with the aforementioned three.

The offensive line was thought to be a major strength coming into the season, but that was only on paper as for some perplexing reason the coaching staff decided to reshuffle the lineup moving Jacolby Ashworth from left tackle (where he had started 29 consecutive games entering the season) to right guard. Rowdy Harper took his 14 starts from last season at right tackle and replaced Ashworth on the left side. First time starter Ralph Oragwu replaced Harper at right tackle with Kevin Forsch replacing departed senior Chris Thompson at center. The only returning starter who remained in the same spot as last season is left guard Ty Cloud. So much for the continuity that 71 starts from previous seasons brings. The line has been decent in protecting Piland and opening up running lanes for the backs, but then both Forsch and Oragwu left the game with knee and ankle issues respectively. As of this writing their status for next Saturday’s game at UCLA is unknown. Bryce Redman and DeAnthony Sims are both upperclassmen who did an admirable job in replacing them, but the depth behind those two gets sketchy after that.

While the offense did a nice job in acquitting itself for the awful performance against Texas State, the same could not be said of the defense, particularly the front four of Lloyd Allen and Zeke Riser at end and Dominic Miller and Radermon Scypion inside at tackle. As the previous week against Texas State, Louisiana Tech ran through and around the front four to the tune of 245 yards, which is about what they allowed to Texas State as well. They have put little to no pressure on the quarter back through two games, amassing exactly one sack (Allen) among them. Eric Braswell has two total tackles through two games as a reserve after playing well last season as a starter and Kelvin King has added very little in terms of pressures at the end spot as well. Inside at tackle, Joey Mbu has four tackles total through two games (as does King and Riser which is one more than Miller). Tomme Mark has played nice for a true freshman with 5 tackles and a pass batted down versus La Tech. The emphasis of the defense this season, according to defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant, was to be more aggressive this season. With little pressure from the defensive line, the secondary is being hung out to dry as the QB has all day to go through his progressions as both Texas State and Louisiana Tech have averaged 275 passing yards versus the Coogs D on the young season.

The bright side of the defense is the continued stellar play of both Derrick Mathews and Phillip Steward as the playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Mathews has amassed 27 total tackles (including 7 for loss) with Steward right behind him at 26 (4.5 for loss). Mathews leads the team with 2 sacks and Steward (again right behind him) with one. Unfortunately, Everett Daniels has only five tackles in two games at Mike linebacker and seems to be making little difference thus far. Marcus McGraw, a four year starter who Daniels is replacing in the middle, would have had five tackles in a quarter last season. Again, as with the quarterback and wide receiver spots, this years defense has to replace an awful lot of not only production, but leadership as well.

Due to the lack of pressure by the front seven, the secondary looks little like the crew who intercepted 21 passes last season which was tied for third in the nation last season (with La Tech). Granted six of those interceptions came from Steward at his strong linebacker spot, the secondary had less time to cover receivers due to the ferocious pass rush, led by departed senior (and current Miami Dolphin) Sammy Brown off the edge. D.J. Hayden has played decently over two games, but even he got burned a few times in one-on-one coverage versus La Tech’s top receiver (Patton) Saturday night. Zach McMillian actually has more tackles (18) than Hayden (15) on the young season but most of those are AFTER he allows his man to make a catch as Bryant’s zone scheme has the corners playing at least 8 yards off their opposing receivers. Many of the pass completions through two games have been of the dink-and-dunk variety as that is what Bryant’s zone scheme is giving them. Both Chris Cermin and Jeffrey Lewis don’t seem to be play makers are safety and Cermin has been known to either miss totally or take bad angles in trying to make tackles – which seems to be an epidemic team wide on defense. True freshman Trevon Stewart has played pretty well as a nickel back and is sixth on the team with 12 total tackles (including 1.5 for loss).

Special teams, as with the rest of the team, has not really played too special on the young season, at least returns wise. In what seems to be a recurring theme, replacing the departed Carrier as the NCAA career leader (with seven kickoff returns for TD) will be a slow process as the freshman, Jackson, is only averaging 18 yards per return on 5 total. He made a major mistake Saturday night in trying to return a ball he should have downed in the end zone and only brought it out to the Cougars 8 yard line, setting them up with horrible field position to start the game. Again though, he is a freshman and will learn as the talent is most definitely there. Peace has returned two punts for 13 total yards and Hayden one for eleven. D.J. is a play maker so maybe some time should be given to him as a returner? Coverage wise, Leone is playing excellent as a punter, averaging 49 yards on ten punts, although Texas State and La Tech have returned five of them for an average of eight yards per. As a kicker, Leone has only three touchbacks in 11 kickoffs, but opponents have only returned them for an average of 20 yards, which is actually better than a touchback considering the ball would be placed at the 25 yard line, per the new rules this season. Field goal kicker Matt Hogan has been his solid self, connecting on all four of his field goals this season, including one from 40 and 50 yards out.

On a side note, with the way the game was called Saturday night by the refs one would have thought the NFL replacement refs were working the game. At least three of the face mask penalties called on the Coogs and one of the pass interference calls on Hayden quite simply didn’t happen. The fifteen yard roughing the QB call when Steward slammed him out of bounds was atrocious as Steward wrapped him up inbounds. What was he suppose to do, let him go?? The last time I looked, this wasn’t flag football – although from the way these games are being officiated today, it might as well be. On my final rant about the refs, from where I was sitting the Louisiana Tech 99 yard scoring drive that occurred in the third quarter (to re-give the Bulldogs momentum in taking the 28-20 lead) NEVER should have happened. The Bulldog returner’s knee looked to be down in the end zone as he tried to return a kickoff which should have resulted in a safety and would have given the Coogs offense the ball again. In yet another horrendous call, the refs ruled his forward momentum took him to the one yard line. The result was not encouraging as two huge plays allowed the Bulldogs to score, the first being a 20 yard pass to Patton on the next play and later a 59 yard scoring run by the Bulldogs freshman running back (King) killed any momentum the team had from the second quarter.

In summary, despite the sloppy play the Coogs gave a valiant effort and were only one failed onsides kick from attempting to tie the ball game on their final possession. Two turnovers deep in Cougar territory – one being a fumble by Sims at the Coogs 47 yard line on the first possession and the second being a Jackson fumble at their 14 yard line gave the defense too short a field to work with, in allowing the Bulldogs to score TDs both times. Coach Levine mentioned in his post game press conference that the team will continue to emphasize securing the ball on offense and tackling the ball carrier on defense. If they continue not to, this will turn into a very long season.

 


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