Game 4 Preview – Battle for the Bucket

The Houston Cougars travel to Reliant Stadium Saturday to face the Rice Owls in the 39th annual ‘Battle for the Bayou Bucket.' Game time is set for 2:30pm (CST) and will be televised on Fox Sports affiliates. The Cougars have won 27 of the previous 38 games highlighted by last season's Texans quarterback Case Keenum threw for over 500 yards and NINE touchdowns.

and NINE touchdowns. The teams have split the past four meetings, however, with Rice winning the previous two (in 2008 and 10) at Rice Stadium.

In order to win their first game of the season (and avoid their first 0-4 start since 2001), it is imperative that the Cougars gain an early lead in order to gain some confidence. While the Coogs have not led once yet in an entire game on the early season, the Owls are also suffering from this same lack of preparedness on both sides of the ball (which would help explain the Owls 1-3 start). In fact, both teams have been outscored by 70 points in the first quarter (106 to 36) combined. I’m looking for both teams to come out firing on all cylinders (offensively anyway) because, as Cougars head coach Tony Levine said during his weekly media press conference (via uhcougars.com), “We’re really looking forward to this week because it’s a rivalry game.”

Coogs QB David Piland on the importance of the ‘Bayou Bucket, “It’s a big deal; a lot rides on the game in this city. It’s a big deal for them and for us. I’m excited to get another shot at it since it didn’t work out the way we wanted my freshman year. Fumbling that ball on fourth down (on the Owls 42 yard line with under a minute remaining in their 34-31 loss at Rice stadium in 2010 in Piland’s second career start) really sits with you. I’m excited to have another opportunity to play and put our offense back where it needs to be.”

Where that offense needs to be is back near the top of the NCAA total and scoring offense statistical standings where they have been over the past eight years (under both Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles). The Cougars currently rank 32nd nationally in total offense, averaging 469 yards per game. The Owls are actually two spots ahead of the Coogs at 30th averaging 471 yards per game. While the Coogs are better are passing (347 to 242 per game), the Owls are a much more balanced team as they average 204 rushing yards, which ranks them 32nd (to the Coogs anemic 122 yards per, ranking them 94th). Houston hasn’t averaged less than 132 rushing yards per game in any of the past five seasons. While this would suggest that the rushing game needs to be established early, this doesn’t seem to be emphasized as much under the Levine era (although we’re only four games in). Even with the resignation of offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt nearly three weeks ago, this offense is still a pass first, second and third offense under new coordinator Travis Bush. Of course this could be due to the fact that the Cougars have allowed all three opponents to score so quickly in the first quarter and faced such huge deficits that their running game has been all but negated?

Luckily the Cougars seem to be healthy heading into this game as four starters will return for game in center Kevin Forsch, right tackle Ralph Oragwu and most importantly – running back Charles Sims. Reserve running back Ryan Jackson is listed as probable while wide receiver Larry McDuffy re-injured a hamstring in practice this week and is doubtful. Starting slot receiver Ronnie Williams is listed as doubtful and is not listed on the two-deep depth chart as well. Early in the season, it seems that Piland and his receivers aren’t quite on the same page, as they are either running the wrong routes, not getting open enough, or are just dropping the ball too often when Piland actually does hit them in the chest. With this being the case, I see Bush using Sims early and often against Rice in trying to get one-on-one matchups out on the perimeter against the Owls linebackers and secondary. Owls head coach, David Bailiff echoed a familiar tune (to Coogfans) when he said, “We need to play better on defense. We need to tackle better and win those one-on-one matchups” following their heartbreaking 54-51 loss in double overtime to Marshall this past Saturday. They have forced six turnovers as a defense (3 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries) and must force more in order slow down the Cougars offense.

Last season, under defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond, they unwisely elected to play the Coogs in man-coverage most of the game. That resulted in the aforementioned 73-14 stomping as Keenum, Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson took their turns burning the Owls secondary all night (albeit after a slow start.) I look for the Owls to employ the same strategy in this game as the Owls just don’t have enough up front to stifle the Coogs offensive line with just their front four. The Owls will also vary up coverages as they’ll use a cover-one (single safety up high) and cover-two (two deep with four underneath) to try to confuse the young Cougars signal caller. The Owls have two nice cover corners in Phillip Gaines (who leads the team with 8 passes defended) and Bryce Callahan (who leads the team two interceptions this season after intercepting six last year), who will probably match up with outside receiver (X) Dewayne Peace (who leads the team with 23 receptions for 257 yards) and slot (or Y) receiver Daniel Spencer (18 for 265). If the Owls go with man coverage in Thurmond’s 4-2-5 scheme, look for Bush to try to isolate Deontay Greenberry one-on-one with high safety Paul Porras (who leads the team with 40 tackles). The true freshman receiver has only 10 receptions for 94 yards on the season but has the type of speed and athleticism that has the potential to have a breakout game at any point. Julius White (who took over for Corey Frazier at free safety after he was lost for the season with a knee injury) has size, athletic ability and is known to throw his body all over the field.

Owls linebacker, and defensive leader, Cameron Nwosu (who’s known as the ‘Pocket Rocket’) will have a very busy evening, especially on the many swing routes to Sims and Jackson on the perimeter. The junior is Rice’s second leading tackler with 31 with an interception and three blocked extra points (an NCAA record versus UCLA in their opening game). Up front is where the Owls are really hurting as they have lost eight defensive ends at one point or another over the course of the summer and early season. At right end the reliable veteran Jarred Williams will try to use his quickness (as he’s listed at only 255 pounds) in trying to get around Cougars left tackle Rowdy Harper (and his 300 pounds). At left end, Cody Bauer will try to jettison the Coogs right tackle Oragwu. Bauer is more of a bull rusher although he’s only listed at 255 pounds. Look to see if the Owls test Oragwu’s ankle early on with rushes off of his side. The Owls have virtually no depth along the line as it’s been reported that they have been moving offensive players (namely wide receivers) to the defensive side of the ball to shore up the defensive end spot.

As with the Owls edge rushers, their interior linemen aren’t very big either. Defensive tackles Chris Covington and Hosam Shahin are listed at 285 and 290 pounds respectively, although they are active as they have 20 and 12 tackles respectively and both have one and a half sacks. How the interior of the Coogs offensive line (Ty Cloud at left guard, Forsch at center and Jacolby Ashworth at right guard) handle the Owls defensive front will determine how much time Piland has to throw and ultimately, the Coogs offensive success. Why Ashworth was moved from left tackle (where he had started the previous 29 games entering this season) to right guard is beyond me and will be a topic for another article.

The major key in the matchup of the Cougars offense versus the Owls defense will be turnovers. While the Owls have only recovered three fumbles (as mentioned earlier), they are tied for sixth nationally with seven forced fumbles, led by hard hitting linebacker Kyle Prater’s two. A break here or there (or a bad bounce) could have led to a few more turnovers for the Owls defense so it will be key for the Cougars to hold onto the ball at all times.

While I like how the Cougars offense matches up with the Owls defense, I do not like how the Cougars defense will matchup against the Owls offense. Under offensive coordinator John Reagan, Rice employs a multiple offense that attacks opponents with a power running game up the middle or off the edge (with their read-option game), while also being able to use the middle of the field (with their big tight ends) in the passing game. Their offense only lacks the threat of the deep ball. Of course their passing game will be affected big time if their starting QB Taylor McHargue is unable to play. The redshirt junior hurt his shoulder in their previous game and is listed as ‘day-to-day.’ It’s been reported that he suffered a left shoulder separation which makes him highly doubtful to start. This is unfortunate for the Owls as he has really been playing well this season as he’s averaging 230 yards passing while completing 60 percent of his passes. He has passed for 7 TDs on the young season while only tossing two interceptions. Decision making has been key for the 6-foot-1, 210 pounder as he was a turnover machine last season in rotating with Nick Fanuzzi over the past two seasons. No longer needing to look over his shoulder (if he makes a mistake) has really seemed to settle him down as he’s also the Owls leading rusher with 359 yards (89.8 per game) and has rushed for five touchdowns. While losing his experience will hurt, his backup will more than be able to handle the read-option portion of the Owls rushing attack. Driphus Jackson is a redshirt freshman who accounted for 30 TDs his senior season at Austin’s Cedar Hills high school. The quick yet physical 6-foot, 200 pounder scored a TD last week in OT against Marshall after McHargue went down with his injury. He’s played in all four of the Owls games completing two of six passes for 32 yards while rushing for 30 yards on 9 carries with that lone TD. If Jackson makes the start look for Cougars defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant to ‘load the box’ with seven or even eight defenders while trying to make Jackson a passer only, much like they did in last seasons ‘Ticket City Bowl’ versus Penn State with Rob Bolden at QB. If Jackson starts, the Owls no huddle, quick passing game will also be affected just because of the experience factor.

Coach Levine and Bryant’s main reasoning for moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme was to stop the opposition from running through and around the Cougars defense, which has yet to happen this season. Houston is allowing a tad over 245 rushing yards per game (which ranks them at 117th in the nation) as the front four of Lloyd Allen, Joey Mbu, Radermon Scypion and Zeke Riser have not been getting it done thus far in the early season. This is in terms of both stopping the running game AND putting pressure on opposing QBs as the defense is allowing nearly 290 yards per game through the air (110th) while only sacking QBs only seven times (with the front four only accounting for two of those – one each for Riser and Mbu). The depth, that was suppose to be a strength this season, hasn’t lived up to that promise thus far as Dominic Miller (who was replaced by Mbu in the starting line up) hasn’t produced enough in pushing the pocket back enough to place sufficient pressure in opposing QB’s faces. Kelvin King and Desmond Pulliam haven’t come through either as reserve ends. The most surprising drop off, however, has to be Eric Braswell who has accumulated only 2 tackles in three games, all as a reserve after leading the defensive line with 47 tackles last year as a starter at one of the DE spots. In a scheme in which the front four have a one gap responsibility in which they are suppose to penetrate their gaps in either sacking the QB or tackling the RB for a loss, only Allen and King are in the top ten in tackles with 10 and 9 respectively.

How this front four reads their keys in the Owls read-option game while also remaining disciplined enough to stay in their respective run gaps will determine how successful the Owls running game will be. It only takes one defender to over run his gap to allow a running back to burst through or around the line for a huge gainer. The big nasties up front for the Owls “only” average about 290 pounds per man and are led by JC transfer Nate Richards at center. The JC transfer from Trinity Valley CC has really stabilized the line. While Jon Hodde an his 6-foot-7, 305 pound frame is a multiple year starter at left tackle, the weak link on the line could be right tackle, and first time starter, Caleb Williams. The redshirt freshman is listed at 275 pounds, small for an offensive lineman in this day and age. Look for Bryant to throw multiple blitzes Williams’s way. Along the interior, guards Nico Carlson and Drew Carroll bring a combination of nastiness (Carlson was a defensive lineman last season) and experience (Carroll has started 14 of the last 15 games at right guard).

The Owls three headed monster at running back will be a load to bring down as they are all massive from shoulder to shoulder. Charles Ross (6’1, 230) leads the backs with 244 yards in three games. He also averages over six yards each time he rushes the ball. This puts the Owls in very favorable second down situations most of the time – a key in ‘moving the chains.’ Turner Peterson (6’2, 220) has carried the rock 52 times (second most on the team behind McHargue’s 67) for 193 yards. When Rice goes to their “Wild Owl” formation, Jeremy Eddington (6’2, 235) is the man as placing him at QB gives the Owls one more blocker to deal with a defensive front loaded to stop the run.

The one successful area of the Cougars defense thus far has been linebacker play, or namely that of Phillip Steward at the Sam and Derrick Mathews at the Will. How these two shoot the gaps in sniffing out running plays will determine how successful the Cougars defense is in stopping this vaunted Owls rushing attack. Steward and Mathews leads the defense in tackles (39 and 31 respectively), tackles for loss (6.5 and 8) and sacks (2 and 3). Everett Daniels is still trying to master the Mike (or middle) backer spot in replacing four year starter and departed senior Marcus McGraw. Daniels has only 19 tackles through three games (or six per game for you math wiz’s). You ultimately want your middle linebacker to be one of your team leaders in tackles as he’s suppose to be in the middle of just about every play. The Cougars all time leading tackler (McGraw) called the defensive plays over the past few seasons, a role now held by Steward. Under Bryant, this seems to be either a hit or miss defense as the Coogs are tied for 25th nationally with 28 tackles for loss, led by the ultra aggressive Steward and Mathews. Unfortunately if the two missile-like backers don’t hit their target, the opposition is off and running down field (or so it seems).

As with their running backs, the Owls also have size in their wide receiving core, led by leading receiver Taylor Cook (284 yards on 22 receptions). He’s a matchup nightmare as he’s listed at 6’7, 255 pounds. He was moved from tight end because of the amount of talent already at that position and they wanted to get the athletic big man on the field more in order to take advantage of his athleticism. Other receivers (on the smaller side) that contribute for the Owls are Sam McGuffie (184 yards on 16 receptions and 3 TDs) and Donte Moore (108, 7, and 1). Moore is averaging nearly 16 yards per reception as he and the converted running back (McGuffie) are the deep threats. At tight end (or their Y receiver spot) are Vance McDonald and Luke Wilson. McDonald (6’5, 260) and Wilson (6’5, 250) can line up both as a traditional tight end (when Reagan wants to match them up one-on-one against a slower linebacker or safety) or shift out wide as a receiver when they want to isolate them against a smaller corner back or safety as McDonald explains (via riceowls.com), “With our game plan, we can isolate defenses the way we want with our play-calling. It's good to get big bodies on those little defensive backs. We do what we can, in terms of play-calling, to get that to happen. We seem to have a lot of success, and we have plenty of guys to go around to do it."While they both have nice hands for big men they are also crafty at finding the open spots in zone defenses. While McDonald has 187 yards on 14 receptions and one TD on the season, Wilson has only 30 yards on three receptions with one TD as Cook has taken most of the playing time at receiver with McDonald doing the same at tight end.

The Cougars secondary will have a difficult time handling this physical Owls receiving core, but D.J. Hayden is always up to the challenge. He’ll probably move all around the field in covering McGuffie (or Moore on the outside) or Cook and McDonald (if they line up in the slot.) As he’s not thrown at often, the Cougars top cover corner is still putting up nice numbers as he’s fifth on the team with 22 tackles and first with four passes defended. He’s also not afraid to get physical in the running game as he’s able to read a running play, defeat his blocker and cut said running back down for a loss. As last season, corners Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates will be picked on no matter who they cover. One reason is they always seem to be at a disadvantage size wise as both are listed at 5’10 and under 175 pounds, meaning they are ripe for jump balls. They are also put at a major disadvantage in Bryant’s zone schemes in which they always seem to be playing about at least ten yards off of their receiver, giving up too much of a cushion that allows the opposing QB and WR to play ‘pitch and catch’ too easily.

One major bright spot of the secondary is the play of true freshman Trevon Stewart, who was named the starting free safety in the Coogs last game at UCLA. While he may be small in stature (5’9, 185), he’s huge in heart as he (like Hayden) always has a knack for being around the ball. He’s a true play maker as he’s third on the team with 28 tackles (behind only Steward and Mathews). The fact that your starting free safety is third on your team in tackles is a very telling stat as most of his tackles are 10 to 15 yards down field due to the nature of his position. Kent Brooks is not listed on the ‘two-deep’ depth chart although Coach Levine says he will be back this game. The strong safety had 9 tackles versus Texas State before missing the past two games with an ankle injury. Colton Valencia and Chris Cermin had been manning the strong safety position while Brooks has been injured, to subpar results. Both need to learn to wrap up better as they tend to allow players to run through them too often.

In a matchup of teams that are so even, it’s usually the special teams (along with turnovers) that determine the outcome of a game. This notion held true during last season’s game versus Rice as while the Cougars offense started slowly, it was Carrier’s NCAA career record tying seventh kickoff return for a TD that ignited the crowd on the first play of the game. The Owls have one of the best kickers in the nation in Chris Boswell as he’s money anywhere from with in 50 yards, and even beyond that. The Owls have only allowed four punt returns for only one yard, which doesn’t bode well for the already anemic Cougar punt return teams, led by Peace’s four yard average on three total returns. The Cougars are allowing nearly 10 yards per on 10 total returns, which is not good. The Owls McGuffie has a reputation as being an “all purpose” threat but that hasn’t been on special teams thus far this season as he’s only averaging 19 yards on 4 kickoff returns and has returned his 3 punts for zero yards. Both the Owls and Coogs are allowing over 20 yards per kickoff return. Between the two true freshmen (Trevon Stewart and Ryan Jackson), they are averaging only 17 yards per kickoff return. Maybe getting back Jeffrey Lewis (coming off an injured ankle) will help in this regard as he’s the most experienced kickoff returner on the roster, though he’s only returned one kickoff for 15 yards so far this season. Last season, Damian Payne looked like he could possibly be the heir apparent to Edwards as the Coogs punt returner (especially in returning one punt 89 yards for a TD late in the season at Tulane), alas he hasn’t been heard from this season so far. As always, the two areas of the special the Cougars can actually count on are kicker Matt Hogan (good on 4 of 5 field goals) and punter Richie Leonie (who is first in the NCAA in averaging nearly 49 yards on his 19 punts).

In all, saying that this looks to be a matchup of the resistible force versus the moveable object is obvious. These two defenses are horrible, point blank. Houston is 122nd in the nation (allowing 536 yards per game) which is only better than Rice by ten yards. On a side note (interesting or sadly), only SMU is worse in allowing 561 yards per, while Marshall is better than UH by only 27 yards in terms of total offense allowed. All four are CUSA members. Think the Cougars offense will miss that conference next season (from an offensive statistical perspective)?? The Cougars are 120th nationally allowing 41 points per game while Rice is dead last in allowing 45.8. If either punter plays a snap it may be a minor miracle.

Ultimately, this game will come down to whether or not McHargue can play for Rice. If he does, look for a shootout type of game, with the Cougars ultimately winning 56-49. If he can’t go, the Cougars load the box and shut down the Rice rushing attack (somewhat) in winning 56-21. Either way I see a Cougars victory as the Owls defense will help young David Piland find his inner-Case Keenum as the Coogs win the first game of the season and begin CUSA play at 1-0.


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