Game 5 Preview – North Texas

The Houston Cougars look to continue their momentum from last week's 35-14 victory over cross-town rival Rice as they host the North Texas Mean Green this Saturday at the Rob. Game time is set for 6pm (CST) and will be televised by Comcast Sports Net.

The Mean Green nickname  originated in 1966 after their defense finished the season ranked second nationally against the rush and were led by future NFL Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Steelers legend Joe Greene, who played defensive tackle for the team from 1965 through 1968. They enter play Saturday coming off of a 20-14 victory at Florida Atlantic and have a 2-3 record, which is their best since 2005 (each year thereafter they started at least 1-4). Their head coach is Bill McCarney. The veteran coach of 35 years (including 11 as the head coach at Iowa State) has a 5-7 record in this, his second season leading the Mean Green and is as old school as they come. In this day and age of spread offenses, his style is to grind it out offensively by running the ball between the tackles in order to control the clock while also playing aggressively on defense.

Their offense, coordinated by Mike Canales (who is in his third season), is more than happy to oblige with this ball control philosophy. This style of offense gave the Cougars trouble last season, keeping it close for one half before eventually losing 48-23 in the first game at Apogee Stadium in Denton. Their quarter back, Derek Thompson, enters his second season as the starter and is the teams’ unquestioned leader. The redshirt junior from Glen Rose High is athletic enough to run the ‘read option’ type of plays that always seem to give the Cougars defense problems (or at least had until the past few games). Although he has decent arm strength, Canales keeps the game simple for Thompson as they only average about 200 yards per game (196.6 which ranks them at 99th nationally) through the air. Running the ball is the strength of this offense as they average 164 yards per game, ranking them 64th nationally. Their workhorses are Brandin Byrd and Antoinne Jimmerson as they average nearly 130 yards combined per game. At around 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, both are used to establish the Mean Green’s physical down hill running game. Adding to this, the 6-foot-4, 225 pound Thompson is mobile enough to run the ball on the ‘QB keeper’ to keep opposing front four’s guessing. They also use a ton of misdirection (with receivers motioning across the backfield often being used in ‘speed sweeps’) in order to confuse opposing defenses. They also play fundamentally sound as they have only six turnovers through five games, which is tied for 32nd nationally.

In order to effectively run the ball you must have a stout offensive line, and the Mean Green have just that. From tackle to tackle they average 6-foot-4, 309 pounds and although they are very green (yak yak) they do have experience as four of five starters return from last season, led by two year starter at center Aaron Fortenberry. The 6’4, 308 pound senior has amassed 21 starts over the past two seasons. There are three true sophomores returning in both left and right guards (Y’Barbo Mason and Cyril Lemon) along with the all important left tackle spot – Antonio Johnson. It’s a major understatement in saying that all four are huge men with the smallest being Fortenberry at  308 pounds. The newcomer of the group is junior LaChris Anyiam at right tackle. He is also the smallest of the group at a ‘runt like’ 296 pounds. Tight end Andrew Power is just as important in the Mean Green running game as he often ‘seals the edge’ as a sixth offensive linemen and at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, the senior from Myrtle Beach, SC is very effective at it. Unfortunately for North Texas, he is listed as day-to-day with an undisclosed injury as he missed their last game at FAU. As a line, they have only allowed two sacks through the first five games, tied for fifth nationally. The Cougars front seven will most definitely have their collective hands full with this massive group.

I expect Cougars defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant’s game plan to remain the same as it was against Rice last week, with a few wrinkles added in. Despite holding Rice to only 69 yards rushing, the Cougars are still allowing an average of over 200 yards per game through four games as they are not pressuring either the run or passing game with just their front four of Lloyd Allen, Joey Mbu, Radermon Scypion and Zeke Riser, although they have been improving each game, or so it seems (especially on inside runs). Sam and Will linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews must continue their aggressive play at seeking out the ball. If the front four can hold their blocks and maintain gap integrity as they did at Rice (and UCLA somewhat), they should be ok. Mike linebacker Everett Daniels had his best game of the season last week with nine tackles including two for loss. His continued ownership as one of the leaders of the defense would be much welcomed, as Steward and Mathews cannot do it all.

In stopping Rice’s run game, Coach Bryant often had free safety Trevon Stewart sneak down as six or sometimes seven Cougars would ‘load the box’ right before the ball was snapped, with strong safety Colton Valencia rotating deep in a ‘Cover one’ look in the secondary. This worked well as Stewart has proven to be a tackling machine despite his small stature. If Bryant continues these kinds of looks, Valencia must be disciplined enough to do his job. If he takes his eyes off of any of the North Texas receiving core, he could get burned deep – just as Florida Atlantic was last week against the Mean Green when Thompson hit Brelan Chancellor on a 68 yard post route against a cover-0 look (no deep safeties). This type of undisciplined play by opposing secondary’s is exactly what Canales looks for on video to see who he can burn deep off of play action. Chancellor leads the team in yards receiving (389), average yards per catch (20.2) and TDs receiving (5). Former walk-on Ivan Delgado is their leading receiver, receptions wise with 23 (for 284 yards). At 6’2, 209 pounds, the senior from Killeen is a physical, possession type of receiver. The Mean Green’s third starting receiver is Christopher Bynes, who only has seven receptions on the season. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound redshirt senior is nothing more than a decoy to spread out defenses from sideline-to-sideline, which helps their running game as this extra receiver takes a defender out of the box area. Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden will probably alternate between both Chancellor and Delgado with help from Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates. One key I look at each week is how opposing offensive coordinators like to try isolate the smaller McMillian and Bates in one-on-one matchups with bigger more physical receivers. If Bryant continues to play them both 7 to 10 yards off of their respective receivers each week, look for opposing QBs to play ‘pitch and catch’ as it’s easy yardage. Of course if the Cougars can effectively pressure these QBs it might not make a difference. If the Cougars offense can take a huge lead, opponents running games become null-and-void anyway and the front seven can concentrate on ‘pinning their ears back’ and going after the QB.

Speaking of the Cougars offense, coordinator Travis Bush faces a familiar defensive coordinator (to Cougar fans anyway) in John Skladany. The veteran assistant coach of more than 30 years was the University of Central Florida’s DC the past two seasons and coordinated the Coogs defense the two seasons prior to that. He brings with him his familiar vanilla 4-3 scheme that emphasizes forcing turnovers. North Texas has forced at least one turnover in every game this season and enters the matchup with Houston at +5 in turnover margin, which is 24th in the nation. Houston, on the other hand, is at -6 in turnover margin this season, which ranks 109th nationally. Defensively, through the first five games, the Mean Green has held three of its first five opponents to 14 points or less. It's the first time since 2005 that a North Texas defense has done that and only the third time since 1990 (stats via

They aren’t huge up front as neither of their starting tackles (Lincoln Alexander and Ryan Boutwell) are over 270 pounds, while both ends (K.C. Obi and Brandon McCoy) are less than 260. What they lack for in size they make up for in speed and determination as this front four is responsible for 8.5 of the teams 13 sacks (which is tied for 22nd nationally), led by Obi’s 3.5 and reserve end Aaron Bellazin’s 3. Massive reserve tackle Tevinn Cantly (who tips the scales at a massive 335 pounds) has 2 sacks on the season as well. The Cougars defense is one sack behind with 12 on the season, by the way.

With the Cougars offensive line outweighing the Mean Green’s defensive line by about 50 pounds on average, look for Bush to establish the running game early and often in order to wear out North Texas’ smaller d-line. As opposed to the 175 pounds he weighed when he was a true freshman three years ago, at 215 pounds today, Charles Sims can no longer be classified as a scat back that cannot run between the tackles. With the Cougars massive o-line of Rowdy Harper, Ty Cloud, Bryce Redman (and/or Kevin Forsch), Jacolby Ashworth and Ralph Oragwu (from left to right tackle), I expect the Cougars offense to add to their average of 153 yard per game (while the Mean Green allow just over 150 yards per game rushing themselves) just as they did last week when they steamrolled Rice for nearly 250 yards on the day. I also like how Bush is involving both Kenneth Farrow (who is a more physical downhill runner) and Ryan Jackson (smaller shiftier back) as change of pace backs to Sims while also giving him rest. If Jackson doesn’t curtail his fumbling problems, however, he might not see as much playing time as he has coughed up the rock twice already this season.

As with most 4-3 schemes, the Mean Green will rely on the strength of their defense to stop the Cougars running game, which is their linebacking core, led by Sam linebacker Zachary Orr. The junior from DeSoto leads the team with 44 tackles and has side line to side line speed at 225 pounds. The Mike line backer is Derek Akunne who is second on the team with 40 tackles (including four for loss) and has shown his all-around play with two sacks and an interception to boot. Look for Bush to try to isolate will linebacker Jeremy Phillips (22 tackles) one on one with Sims as he motions out of the backfield to a slot receiver spot often.

The members of the Mean Green secondary also responsible for covering Sims (along with the other Cougars receivers) will be safeties Lee Laramie and Marcus Trice. Laramie is third on the team with 38 tackles while the more physical Trice is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. With both safeties (and linebackers somewhat) on the smaller side it will be interesting to see how they match up in both man and zone coverage with Cougar slot receivers Daniel Spencer and Larry McDuffy. Both receivers had breakout games last week as Spence led the team with 99 yards on five receptions (including a breathtaking 31 yard TD scamper in which he broke four tackles after the catch). McDuffy, the true freshman from Galena Park’s North Shore High, caught eight balls for 99 yards including a 25 yard TD in which he had to break off his route after Coogs QB David Piland scrambled out of the pocket on a 3rd & long play during their second possession of the game. I also thought Bush having Piland throw on the run was a wise move whether it be off of a roll out or improvised, as Piland has deceptive speed.

The two corner backs for North Texas are also on the smaller side as neither Hilbert Jackson nor Zac Whitfield are over 185 pounds. Maybe this will be the game in which five star receiver Deontay Greenberry will break out? Coach Bush had mentioned to me that he’s just waiting for Greenberry to have a monster game as he’s showing flashes of potential each week during practice. At 6-3, 195 pounds the Mean Green don’t have anybody physically that can matchup with Greenberry one-on-one on the outside. Of course Piland has to get the ball to the true freshman where he can create yards after the catch and so far, this has yet to be the case as he only has 126 yards on 13 receptions. It’s been the other outside receiver, Dewayne Peace, who has the most catches of all of the receivers so far with 24 (for 273 yards) on the season. Spencer has the most yards at 364 while McDuffy has the most yards per reception, averaging nearly 17.3 yards on his ten receptions. On a disappointing note, fellow true freshman and slot receiver Andrew Rodriquez will be out a few more weeks with a hamstring issue, according to Cougars head coach Tony Levine. Rodriquez had 82 yards on 5 catches against Louisiana Tech when he ironically replaced McDuffy after he went down with a hamstring issue.

Special teams wise, both North Texas and Houston have played anyway but special. Chancellor has yet to make a dent either returning punts or kickoffs as he’s only averaging a measly two yards per return on five total returns and a mere 20 yard average on ten kickoff returns. Their punter, Will Atterberry, has averaged nearly 41 yards per punt while placing nine of his 31 inside opponents’ 20 yard lines. Kicker Paul Zach (like the Coogs Matt Hogan) has missed three of seven field goal attempts, with all three coming past 40 yards. Both kickers need to improve on their field goal percentage or their respective offensive coordinators might think about going for it more often on 4th down in order to avoid kicking from those distances. Cougars punter Richie Leone might be the teams best player thus far on the young season as he leads the NCAA in averaging 50 yards per punt, placing seven of his 23 inside opponents’ 20 yard lines. As has been the case with Chancellor, the Cougars return teams have been nothing special as Peace has only averaged 3.4 yards per return on his eight returns while Ryan Jackson, reserve corner Jeffrey Lewis and Trevon Stewart have all averaged less than 18 yards per return on their combined seven kickoff returns. Although Zach has nine touchbacks on 20 kickoffs (with Leone four on 19), it would probably be better if both kickers kicked the ball to the goal line forcing a return, as a touchback would give both teams the ball at the 25 yard line, almost 10 yards better than where they would begin each possession if either teams’ return men had actually returned the ball. One bright spot was McDuffy returning a kickoff for 29 yards against Rice. He could be the Cougars answer to their anemic return games in the future. Coverage wise, North Texas is allowing opponents to return punts for nearly 19 yards per return while the Coogs are allowing ‘only’ 8. Of course this number is skewed because of how the Tigers of LSU abused the Mean Green’s punt coverage team during their first game of the season. Both teams kickoff coverage aren’t great shakes either with the Coogs allowing 21 yards per return (with North Texas at 27 per return) although (as in just about every aspect of the game), the Coogs kickoff coverage team excelled against Rice as the Owls started at their 21 yard line on average due to lightning quick hard hits, mainly by special teams standouts Brannon Beasley and Braxton Welford. In all, the Cougars probably have the advantage here if McDuffy can step up.

The Mean Green has not beaten an FBS opponent from the state of Texas since 2006, when they beat SMU at home 24-6. This alone is reason for the Cougars not to let their guard down, as beating the Coogs at the Rob would give the Mean Green a marquee win, just as it did for Texas State to open the season. Not to mention that with the way this team has played undisciplined in all three phases of the game, the Coogs aren’t in a position to overlook anybody at this point in the season.

Having said that, in order for the Cougars to be the type of team they want to be by the end of the season, they don’t have to worry about who they play each week, they just need to continue improving on a week-to-week basis. Last season’s team finished the season 13-1 due in part to this type of attitude. In fact, all of the great teams have this collective mindset, which is what Houston Texans head Coach Gary Kubiak talked about in part earlier this week when he said (via the Houston Chronicle), “The good teams I’ve been around don’t get concerned about who they play, where they play, they get concerned about how they play. That’s a hard thing to get to take over on your team and our guys are to that right now. They know that if they play good football, we’re going to have an excellent chance to win week in and week out.” Even Coach Levine mentioned that mindset during his weekly media press conference yesterday when he said, “It’s still all about us.”

Prediction: The Cougars establish rhythm on offense early with the quick passing game by Piland as he continues to show improvement on his touch. This opens up the running game which leads to a few scores off of long bombs off of the play-action game. With at least a two score lead the defense can then concentrate on pressuring the Mean Green’s QB after they have to abandon their running game. With the game being close in the first half (like last year’s contest); the Coogs physically wear down the Mean Green in the second half, winning by the final score of 45-24.

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