If not for an improbable David Piland 86 yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter (against the Bruins younger backups), the Cougars would have been shut out for the first time since losing 48-0 at Texas during the 2000 season (they have now scored in 149 consecutive games by the way). As with the first two losses, this game came down to mental and physical errors as it only took 14 seconds when receiver Ronnie Williams stopped running after he dropped a lateral on the Cougars second play from scrimmage. The problem was that the pass was a lateral, meaning it was a live ball. Williams stood there shocked as Bruins middle linebacker Eric Kendricks scooped the ball up and raced 23 yards to the endzone giving the Bruins the lead at 7-0. Williams is the most experienced receiver and with as many laterals as this teams throws he should the ball was still live. It’s these types of constant mental miscues that have put the Coogs in early binds in each game in this young season, as all three opponents (Texas State, Louisiana Tech and the Bruins) have all scored on their first possession, placing the pressure squarely on the offense (Note: technically the Bruins scored first off of their defense, unlike Texas State and La. Tech).
Offensively, as in the case with their first two opponents (I feel like a broken record here), the Coogs came out without any rhythm and were unable to put any kind of drive together as the Bruins defensive line put pressure on Piland with just a four or five man rush without any of the exotic blitzes that Cougar opponents have been known for using in the past. Normally when applying that kind of pressure, one would expect the back seven to play various zone coverages on the back end in order to keep any big plays in front of them. This, however, was not the case with the Bruins defense, as they played a lot of man-to-man or bump-and-run coverage. Even Bruins head coach Jim Mora mentioned this during his post game press conference (via uhcougars.com), “We went into the game thinking of starting off playing some man and then shift into some zone. I don’t want this to sound negative at all, but they were open some and were having trouble catching it, so we stuck with that. We took away some things and made some plays on the ball.”
As I had mentioned in my ‘game preview’ piece last week, the Cougar receivers could not allow the Bruins defensive backs to overwhelm them at the line of scrimmage if they wanted any shot at winning. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened as the bigger and more physical Bruins corners jammed the Coog receivers effectively enough to throw off any of the precise timing routes needed for this offense to be successful. Even when the receivers got off the line, there were (yet again) way too many drops of catchable passes. If they weren’t dropping passes they were (still) running wrong routes or running them too short. One in particular was a 3rd & 9 in which Daniel Spencer ran only 8 yards. Piland hit him low with a pass and Spence was tackled immediately, one yard short of the first down. He also dropped an easily catchable ball on a quick slant that would have been a long gainer as there was no safety help over the middle. Mistakes like these are drive killers and ruin any chance of the momentum the team needs. Case in point - the 14 total first down the offense had on the evening. When running efficiently, this offense will have anywhere from 25 to 35 first downs in a game – as that is usually the game plan, to ‘dink and dunk’ or continually move the chains on their way down field taking what opposing defenses give them. In this case, the Bruins defense gave up nothing, so the Cougars offense took nothing.
Dewayne Peace led the way for the receivers with ten catches for 103 yards. Deontay Greenberry had his best game as a Coog with five catches for 60 yards in a sort-of homecoming (as he’s from Fresno), but even he dropped a short pass early in the game on an inside screen with nothing but Cougar blockers and green field in front of him. Williams had one catch for zero yards before leaving with an apparent leg injury, further depleting the receiver core (Larry McDuffy and Andrew Rodriquez didn’t play with hamstring issues). Casey Martin made his first appearance on the season with three catches for 13 yards. Ryan Jackson (who also left the game early on with a leg injury) also caught three balls on the swing type routes out of the backfield that are usually reserved for Charles Sims. With the Bruins athleticism along the line and at linebacker, these swing routes produced zero yards as Jackson was unable to create any type of separation.
Speaking of Sims and the running game, both were noticeably absent from the game. With an apparent hip injury, Sims missed the game although he was dressed on the sideline. Without his shiftiness between the tackles in the Cougars inside (and out) zone blocking scheme, the running game was null-and-void before the game even began. Kenneth Farrow did have one nice 38 yard run midway through the fourth (against the Bruins scrubs), but other than that he only had 36 yards on 12 carries, or good for a 3 yard per carry average. Take away Piland’s late 86 yard TD scamper and the running game was good for only 30 yards on 17 carries, or a miniscule 1.8 yards per carry. On the season the running game has averaged only 122 yards per game, which ranks 94th in the nation. This is yet another huge difference from the past four years as the running game had been emphasized quite a bit more than how the current staff sees’s it.
Of course you can’t run without an effective offensive line leading the way. In what was perceived as one of the strengths entering the season (as four starters with a combined 79 starts were returning), line play has become one of the offenses weaknesses because of injuries and coaching decisions. The injuries are uncontrollable as starting center Kevin Forsch and right tackle Ralph Oragwu did not play against UCLA because of knee injuries that occurred versus Louisiana Tech. The question that needs to be answered is why the coaching staff would move Jacolby Ashworth and his 29 consecutive starts at left tackle to the right side, while having Rowdy Harper and his 14 starts from last season on the right side to replace him? Moving Forsch over to center to replace departed senior Chris Thompson was logical, as Forsch was the backup center last season and had received plenty of practice snaps there. If the four returning starters would have remained in their spots, the only true new starter would have been Oragwu at right guard, the position in which he was supposedly competing for with Emeka Okafor during spring ball. Instead, Ty Cloud and his 14 starts at left guard last year is the only returning starter who remains at his position from last season. This shakeup could not have helped Piland who seems skittish at the first bit of pressure to begin with. If the young QB continues throwing off of his back foot, throwing too high or too low while not having the accuracy to hit his receivers on stride all the while staring down said receivers, this could be a long season (as if it isn’t already).
Defensively, the team actually improved in one aspect (or so it seemed) – tackling. Maybe this was due to the coaching staff inserting new starters at safety as Trevon Stewart and Colton Valencia were inserted at free and strong safety respectively (both safety positions are interchangeable in defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant’s scheme). Of course it’s never a good thing when your starting free safety is your leading tackler, as Stewart was with 16 on the game (with Valencia contributing six and one fumble recovery). The true freshman would have also had a forced fumble if not for a Joey Mbu late hit (which was questionable in my eyes) on the same play (see above for silly mental error tirade). Chris Cermin, who started the first two games at strong safety, only played on special teams and didn’t have any tackles. Kent Brooks, whom had been starting at free safety, will be out a few more weeks with an ankle injury. Linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews once again played very aggressive games, with Steward leading the way with 14 tackles (including two for loss and one sack). Mathews had an uncharacteristically low 4 sacks on the evening, including one sack so maybe it just seemed like he was everywhere as he usually is. Everett Daniels came to play at the Mike (or middle) linebacker spot with his 9 total tackles (after totaling five in his first game). The secondary showed marked improvement as well as D.J. Hayden was throwing his body all over the field as he usually does as he ended the evening with 7 tackles, a forced fumble and two passes broken up. He could have had two more interceptions if he would have kept his eyes on the ball. Those interceptions early in the game could have swung momentum in the Coogs favor (if the offense had known what to actually do with the ball). Up front, the defensive line seemed to hold up better than in the previous two games, although the stats would not suggest this. The Bruins rushed for nearly 250 yards on 56 carries as the three Cougars opponents have combined to average nearly 250 yards per game (246.7 to be exact which is 116th nationally). The Bruins held the ball for a whopping 41 minutes and 14 seconds of game time. On the season the defense is on the field for an average of 39 minutes and 18 seconds which is good for DEAD LAST in the nation. Last season the defense was on the field for 33 minutes and 27 seconds on average, the huge difference being that they were back on the field so quickly only after the offense had just scored. This season they have to get right back on the field after the offense has another “3 & out.” This pressure placed on the defense hurts particularly in the fourth quarter, where 115 of those Bruins rushing yards occurred as the Bruins massive O-line just worn down the Coogs D-line. The aforementioned Mbu replaced Dominic Miller at one defensive tackle spot along with Radermon Scypion and kept the Bruins rushing attack in check for the most part through the first half. Lloyd Allen and Zeke Riser also played decently at end as they set the edge and did not allow too many long gainers outside (especially from the QB), until the fourth quarter as both accounted for a sack. Kelvin King accounted for three tackles for loss as Bryant employed a few more exotic blitz schemes than he had during the Coogs first two games.
Football is often a game about field position, and the Cougars special teams did nothing to help them win this battle. The Cougars offense started on their own 20, on average while the Bruins usually started on their own 38 yard line. Peace returned his lone punt for a negative yard while Stewart (Trevon) returned one kickoff for 16 yards. It didn’t help that Bruins kicker Jeff Lock had an amazing seven touchbacks on his eight kickoffs. On the season Peace has returned three total punts for only 23 yards, or a meager four yard per return average. Hayden has returned one for 11 yards giving the team a total of 23 yards on four returns. Kickoffs aren’t any better as the team is only averaging a 17 yard per return average (between Jeffrey Lewis, Jackson and Stewart). They would probably be better off not even returning any kickoffs if they reach the endzone as they would start on their own 25 with the new kickoff rules in place. In the meantime they are allowing their opponents to return punts for an average of 9.6 yards per (on 10 total returns) while allowing 24.7 on kickoffs (on nine). Seems they miss Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier even more than first anticipated. On the bright side, punter Richie Leone is averaging nearly 49 yards per (on 19 punts), good for fifth nationally. Of course his 19 total punts have him tied for eight nationally, a stat unheard of in these parts. He has placed five of those punts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line. Kicking off, Leone has only 4 touchbacks on 13 total kickoffs, but is getting the ball to around the opponents’ one yard line, giving the coverage team plenty of time to get there to make the tackle. Matt Hogan missed a 46 yard field goal against the Bruins when the game was still winnable (although that’s arguable as the Bruins only led 17-0 at that point) which was his first miss on the season on five attempts. Besides the play of Leone and Hogan, the poor special teams play is a little talked about sore spot for the coaching staff as Levine was the special teams coach for the past four years under Sumlin, while new coach Jamie Christian had very nice special teams at his previous stop – Arizona State.
Speaking of the coaching, has the goodwill (in which the success of the previous staff afforded) run out after only three games? Fans want to know the answers too many different questions; why the offensive line changes? Why the defensive scheme change? Why are players who had nice seasons last year suddenly not playing as much (see defensive lineman Eric Braswell)? Only time (and game attendance) will only tell. This coaching staff has a lot to work on as this is an off-week. The team simply cannot continue making the same mistakes over and over again. The Cougars turnover margin (-1.33) is tied for 108th in the nation. This, a year after ranking 4th (at +1.14). While the defense improved on tackling and forcing turnovers against the Bruins, 5 interceptions (6 on the season) by your QB simply will not cut it. This team has not led once over the course of three games, which is unheard of. Teams cannot play effectively under that sort of pressure and it will be up to the coaching staff to put the team in position to gain an early lead in their next game at Reliant Stadium versus Rice (Sept. 29th) to alleviate that pressure. The teams’ goals of winning Conference-USA are still in front of them. Hopefully with a week off, the injured players will have returned and the team can settle down playing against more familiar competition.