Game 4 Recap – Getting Physical

The Houston Cougars obliterated the Rice Owls 35-14 Saturday afternoon at Reliant Stadium before an announced crowd of 32,718, keeping the ‘Bayou Bucket' on Cullen Boulevard for a second straight season. The win gave Tony Levine his first regular season victory as Houston's head coach and second in five games overall (his first being last season's bowl game over Penn State).

After a sloppy first half for both teams (despite a 14-0 Cougars lead), Houston took control of the game midway through the third quarter after putting up two more scores for a 28-0 lead, although the story of the game was the Cougars hard hitting physical defense.

This game reminded me of the previously mentioned ‘Ticket City Bowl’ that concluded last season, as the Cougars faced a ‘vertically challenged’ quarterback who severely limited their options, offensively speaking. While the Owls were down to starting redshirt freshman quarterback in Driphus Jackson (who replaced the injured redshirt junior Taylor McHargue), the defensive game plan by defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant was excellent (even if simple) – crowd the line of scrimmage with seven or even eight defenders and make the inexperienced Jackson beat you with his arm. The most important part of the defense was to be able to tackle in one on one situations out in space. The tone was set on Rice’s first possession of the game in which Mike (middle) linebacker Everett Daniels wrapped up Owls on consecutive plays, forcing a third and eight. After Jackson used his legs in scrambling to complete a pass for the Owls initial first down, the Cougars defenders really started to lay the wood. Sam (strong side) linebacker Phillip Steward continued his stellar play on the season as he sacked Jackson and forced a fumble that defensive tackle Radermon Scypion would recover at the Rice 31 yard line. While the offense could not capitalize on this turnover (which I’ll harp on later), it will be imperative the remainder of the season for the defense to continue playing in this aggressive attacking style of going after opposing QBs.

On the game, the Owls rushed for only 69 yards on 34 carries, (included in that total were 48 yards lost on Cougar sacks or tackles for loss). The defense, which is tied for third nationally averaging nine and a half tackles for loss per game while also ranking 17th in sacks averaging three per game, is usually led by Steward and will (weakside) linebacker Derrick Mathews. Steward played his usual aggressive style leading the defense with three tackles for loss and two and a half sacks to go along with eight total tackles. It could be said that Mathews actually played a subpar game (by his standards) as he ‘only’ had six tackles (including two for loss). These two cannot be the only playmakers each week however, so it was a pleasant surprise when Daniels stepped up while having his best game in this his first season as a starter (while replacing the universities all time leader in tackles in Marcus McGraw) as he contributed nine tackles (including two and a half for loss), one sack and one pass breakup.

The defense is starting to look as if they are hitting their stride as far as job responsibilities are concerned. While the linebacker’s role will be to attack the ball as much as possible, the front four held their blocks against the Owls offensive linemen which allowed for the linebackers (and safeties) to shoot the gaps (especially on the read-option game) to create havoc in the backfield. The front line also held their gaps well enough to NOT allow the Owls rushing game to gash them up the middle, as had been the case in years past. Rice power backs Charles Ross and Jeremy Eddington combined for only 91 yards on 20 combined carries. Even the ‘Wild Owl’ formations that had hurt the defense badly in years past didn’t amount to much this game because of the defensive lines’ stout play. Scypion, along with Joey Mbu, Dominic Miller and true freshman Tomme Mark have definitely improved as the year has progressed. Defensive ends Lloyd Allen, Zeke Riser and Kelvin King did a nice job of ‘setting the edge’ or not allow the Owls option game to run for long gainers. King led the defensive linemen with three tackles with Allen gaining two and a half sacks and Riser adding one. The continued disappearance of Eric Braswell (a member of the CUSA All Freshman team last season) is still troubling as his effective play would lead to the kind of depth the defense is going to need against the passing teams during conference play.

Rice threw for 274 yards on 18 on 36 passing, with 88 of those yards coming on the Owls final possession in ‘garbage time’ on a short pass to Sam McGuffie, who broke free from busted coverage from corner Jeffrey Lewis and strong safety Colton Valencia. Besides that miscommunication error, the secondary had a nice game overall as well. Shutdown corner D.J. Hayden only had five tackles on the game as the Owls didn’t throw to his side too often, though he did have one questionable pass interference call while also allowing McGuffie to burn him on a nice fade to the endzone (after a turnover on a fumbled punt gave Rice the ball on the Houston 21 yard line). Fellow corners Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates weren’t hurt against the receivers they were covering even though they continue to play off the line of scrimmage too much for my liking.

Trevon Stewart continues his amazing play at free safety as he led the defense for the second straight game with 11 tackles (8 solo), one pass breakup and half a tackle for loss. He was able to make all of these tackles as he was often the eighth man in the box as Bryant would have him creep up to the line of scrimmage right before Jackson was to snap the ball. Valencia would then rotate back as the Cougars played a ‘cover-one’ coverage in the back end plenty as they looked to get Stewart as close to the ball as possible. This moving of the defense also confused the freshman Rice QB as he did not account for the true freshman safety from Patterson, Louisiana. Much in the mold of Steward and Mathews at linebacker, Stewart and Hayden are the playmakers of the secondary.

While the offense finished the game with 608 yards of total offense (247 rushing and 361 passing) on 87 total plays, they still looked inconsistent (especially early on). After the defense gift wrapped their first possession on the Owls 31 yard line (on the previously mentioned fumble recovery by Scypion), the offense came away with zero points after a one yard run and two incompletions on bad passes by QB David Piland. After his third straight completion to begin the game on the Cougars next possession, Piland and the offense finally started to get into rhythm on a swing pass to running back Charles Sims who scampered for 29 yards. Getting the ball to Sims is probably the best bet for first year offensive coordinator Travis Bush as it takes the pressure off of Piland, who still seems skittish in the pocket at times. The young redshirt sophomore actually looks more comfortable throwing on the run, which is exactly what he was doing when he threw a nice 25 yard TD to Larry McDuffy to finish off the Cougars second possession of the game, giving them their first lead of the season. In fact, Piland scrambled out of the pocket on the 3rd & 15 play when his protection broke down and even pointed to where McDuffy should break off his route before tossing the ball to the sliding true freshman. Piland completed 26 of his 43 passes for 361 yards with two scoring tosses and one interception (on an overthrown post pattern on the Coogs third possession). For the season Piland is completing ‘only’ 56 percent of his 224 passes (for an average of about 56 per game) and is averaging 350 yards per game but has tossed only seven TDs to seven interceptions. In order for this version of the ‘Air Raid’ offense to run effectively, the QB must complete around minimum of 60 percent of his passes, many of which are based on short timing routes that let the wide receivers create yards after the catch, (or YAC yardage).

Speaking of the receivers, Levine counted 12 dropped passes by the receivers (for the second straight game), which is unacceptable in this offense. The culprit of many of these drops so far on the season belongs to one of the slot receivers (Y) Daniel Spencer. After a bad drop on a quick slant that hit him right on the hands on a 3rd & 9 play in the middle of the first quarter that was sure to be a first down, Spence more than made up for it on the next possession after he broke four tackles in running 29 yards on another slant for a TD to give the Coogs a 14-0 lead with nearly three minutes remaining in the second quarter and had 99 receiving yards on five total receptions. McDuffy returned to action after missing the previous two games (with a hamstring injury) and did a great Tyron Carrier imitation from the other slot position (H) with a team high 100 yards on eight receptions. Outside receivers Deontay Greenberry (X) and Dewayne Peace (Z) had three receptions for 32 yards and one for 16 respectively as they took a back seat to the aforementioned Spencer and McDuffy. Veteran slot receiver Ronnie Williams, returning off of a lower leg injury at UCLA, only had one reception for six yards in limited playing time. Another shifty slot receiver who has the potential to contribute hugely this season is Andrew Rodriquez. The true freshman did not play for the second consecutive game due to a hamstring issue.

With Sims being the athlete he is, Bush was wise to get him the ball out of the backfield on various swing routes and crossing patterns (after motioning out of the backfield to a slot position) as he contributed 47 yards on four receptions. The biggest surprise of the offense might have been backup running back Kenneth Farrow’s receiving abilities out of the backfield as he also caught the ball four times, for 61 yards. Thirty five of those yards were on a beautiful wheel route totally fooling the Owls defense, getting the ball to the Rice three yard line where Sims rushed for a TD on the following play that would give the team an insurmountable 21-0 early in the third quarter.

Speaking of Sims and Farrow, the Cougars running game returned after only averaging 122 yards per game through the first three games of the season. Sims rushed for 158 yards on 25 carries, many coming on tough runs via the inside zone blocking scheme employed by an offensive line returning two starters from injury (Ralph Oragwu at right tackle and Kevin Forsch at center). Technically Bryce Redman started at center, but was replaced by Forsch when the O-line started to establish itself physically later in the game. Oragwu and Redman had a few false start penalties that need shoring up. Jacolby Ashworth at right guard, Ty Cloud at left guard and Rowdy Harper at left tackle wore out the Owls overmatched and smaller defensive line as the offense basically ran the clock down in the second half after gaining the early lead. This is what Levine would like the offensive game plan to be every week as he mentioned during his post game media press conference (via, Run the football, establish the run and then set up some play action throws and take some shots down the field when we think it's appropriate.” Sims can’t handle the entire load running wise all season so other backs will have to step up, much like last season when Michael Hayes and Bryce “Brick” Beall were also featured. Farrow and Ryan Jackson will need to step up before the season is complete. Farrow rushed for 17 yards on 6 carries with Jackson contributing 13 yards on his lone 2 carries (though he had another fumble which is sure to limit his future playing time). Special teams stalwart and redshirt senior Braxton Welford had a physical 37 yards on 9 carries on the Coogs final possession to run out the clock. Bush would not only be smart to move Piland out of the pocket in the passing game, but roll him out on bootlegs and/or read option types of plays as he is deceptively athletic (as his 86 yard TD run at UCLA would attest). Piland ran for 25 yards on only 3 carries versus Rice.

Special teams play, as has been the case most of the season, was mixed at best. While both the kickoff and punt coverage teams were outstanding, the return teams were as equally ineffective. The Owls averaged starting at their own 21 yard line for the game, as kicker Richie Leone boomed most of his kickoffs to the one yard line, allowing the kickoff coverage teams to stymie the Owls returners for minimum yardage. It would have been better for Rice if Leone had simply kicked the ball into the endzone and had the Owls returners simply kneel down, giving them the ball at the 25 (due to new kickoff return rules implemented this season). Leone had four touchbacks on 13 kickoffs prior to this game so it’s something that he can do, but special teams coordinator Jamie Christian obviously saw something on film that led him to believe the cover teams could corral the Owls return men. Both Welford and Chris Cermin were beasts on coverage  teams with numerous tackles each. Return wise, McDuffy returned his lone kickoff for an above average 29 yards. Look for him to return more kickoffs (and even punts) as he seems to have a knack of making plays. Hopefully he (McDuffy) will at least know when to return a kickoff (or simply to kneel down taking the touchback), something neither Stewart (Trevon) nor Lewis (Jeffrey) have seemed to pick up on so far this season. Their (Stewart and Lewis) indecisiveness has helped the Cougars rank 100th in the nation in kickoff return average with a paltry 18 yards per game, a far cry from Carrier setting an NCAA record for returns with seven over his four years. Both he and fellow departed receiver Patrick Edwards were threats to return kickoffs and punts each time they touched the ball. As opposed to Peace (Dewayne), who dances too much once he catches a punt which leads to lost yardage on too many occasions as Peace is only averaging 3.4 yards on eight total returns. This lack of playmaking ability in the return game hurts the team field position wise, which is something the offense could really use, especially when struggling. As with his kickoffs, Leone is really booming his punts as he is leading the nation averaging more than 48 yards per punt and has ten punts of 50 or more yards along with pinning opponents inside their 20 seven times on the young season. As much as Leone is excelling, Matt Hogan is struggling as he has missed his last three field goal attempts (after making his first four on the season). He missed badly from 45 and 47 yards out against Rice. He honestly hasn’t received enough opportunities to gain much practice so far this season.

Overall, the offense and special teams need to pick up their play. Turnovers are also killing the Coogs as their turnover margin of minus six is tied for 113th in the nation. In fact, the Owls might have been shut out if not for the fumbles by Peace (on the attempted punt return) and Jackson. These kinds of basic fundamentals will cost the team in future close games. While it’s nice to enjoy the fruits of victory, many (myself included), thought that the Coogs could simply reload and have the same type of magical season that we all experienced last year, and that’s simply not going to be the case. The key, in my eyes, is how you look at the rest of the season, or how you put it in perspective. In closing, I couldn’t agree more with Coach Levine when he said, The thing I'm excited about is that we're a young team, and I'm going to enjoy the next two months watching this football team grow up in front of our eyes.”

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