The Blazers enter play with a 1-4 (0-1 in Conference USA) record and are led by first year head coach Garrick McGee. The former Oklahoma quarterback (1994) was the offensive coordinator for the past four seasons at Arkansas (though Bobby Petrino called the plays). He was so beloved by his players that many thought he was going to be asked to become head coach for the Razorbacks after the Petrino fiasco this past April. Alas, the call never came and for the record, he said he wouldn’t have taken the job even if offered as he was happy in Birmingham.
The Blazers four losses come to teams (Troy, South Carolina, Ohio State and Tulsa) with a combined record of 20-3. Their loan victory came last week as they dominated FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana, 52-3 behind the play of quarter back Austin Brown. The redshirt freshman, whom had replaced Jonathan Perry (last season’s starter) at the beginning of the second quarter of the game at Ohio State (three games ago), has passed for 799 yards over the past 11 quarters with four TDs and two interceptions. During those three games he has completed 57 of 87 passes for a 65.5 completion percentage, which is what their coaching staff wants in their up-tempo pass oriented spread scheme. The veteran Perry is ready to take over for Brown if need be as the 6-foot-1, 210 pounder injured his ankle during last week’s victory but should start Saturday against the Coogs (according to McGee).
Speaking of the Blazers offense, their offensive coordinator, Jeff Brohm, comes from a long line of quarterbacks that played at Louisville, where he holds numerous school passing records and also played for a number of years with numerous teams as a backup QB in the NFL. He has also been an OC at his alma mater and Illinois. He holds the same offensive philosophies that McGee (and Petrino) does, which is to pass first and pass often. McGee even mentioned that his team and the Cougars have a lot of the same types of offensive philosophies and rules as both he and Cougars head coach, Tony Levine, can be said to have been branches off of the ‘Petrino coaching tree.’
What makes the Blazers offense or their passing offense anyway (which ranks 27th nationally averaging 303 yards per game) so scary is that they love to pass deep. Brown can throw from either hash mark to the sideline and any throws in between as they also love to spread opposing defenses out from sideline to sideline as well. Brown also has great accuracy, especially for a redshirt freshman and will look to exploit the Cougars soft zone defense with their up tempo no huddle sets. Brohm won’t be afraid to attack the Cougars best corner either, as it seems that D.J. Hayden has been beaten deep at least once in each game this season. This happens when an athlete relies on his athleticism over his technique, and if there’s one thing the Blazers’ wide receivers have its athleticism. Look for Brohm to test the Cougars secondary by having Brown getting the ball out of his hands quickly, much like the Cougars do on offense. Unlike the Cougars, however, the Blazers have also connected deep numerous times this season as Brown is averaging a healthy 14 yards per on his 57 completions. The Blazers have a nice blend of speed and size in their receiving core led by Jackie Williams. The 5-foot-11, 190 pound junior leads the team with 389 yards and 24 receptions. The other two starters are senior Nick Adams and sophomore JaMarcus Nelson. Adams has 212 yards on 17 receptions (along with one TD) while Nelson is the true deep threat as he is averaging 27.2 yards per reception on his 8 catches (218 yards) with 3 TDs. The 5-foot-11,160 pound burner caught a 75 yard bomb in a close 49-42 loss against Tulsa a few weeks ago. He’s replacing senior Patrick Hearn (241 yards on 20 receptions) who is out with a broken hand. Running backs Greg Franklin and Darrin Reaves are also threats out of the Blazers backfield as Reaves has caught 13 passes so far this season while Franklin is averaging 18.6 yards on his 7 receptions (including 2 TDs). The Blazers also have two tight end/H-back types in Kennard Backman and Sam Accursio. Backman has the ability to hurt the Coogs underneath with his 6-foot-3 inch 258 pound frame as he is averaging nearly 11 yards on his 8 receptions.
Cougars’ defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant will have his hands full in dealing with this multiple passing attack as the team will have to adjust after having played two power oriented run first teams in Rice and North Texas over the past two weeks. Cornerbacks Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have a combined seven passes defended and broken up to Hayden’s nine alone, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Bryant’s soft cover two zone coverage in the secondary. True freshman Adrian McDonald has broken into the lineup at corner so he might get extended playing time, especially at the nickel spot. Look for Bryant to have freshman free safety Trevon Stewart roaming the box less than he did against Rice and North Texas, and in coverage more as he was originally a cornerback in high school. Strong safeties Colton Valencia and Kent Brooks (who is improving after being out a few weeks with an injury) will mix up their coverages over the middle and deep portions of the field. Brooks needs to ‘lay the wood’ on anyone over the middle of the field while Sam linebacker Phillip Steward will have to continue covering running backs out of the backfield while also shadowing tight ends and slot receivers as well.
As good as the Blazers passing game has been, their running game has been just as bad (as they rank 119th in the nation) in averaging only 92 yards per game. Franklin and Reaves (already mentioned as they are probably considered more threatening out of the backfield as receivers than actual rushers) only average 66 rushing yards combined per game (48 for Reaves) on a combined 18 attempts per game. While both Franklin (197 pounds) and Reaves (210) aren’t tiny, neither is a between the tackles type. The bruising running is saved for redshirt freshman Bashr Coles and his 215 pound bowling ball frame (as he is only 5-feet-10 inches). Coles is averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry on his 24 attempts. Brown doesn’t scramble often, but is athletic enough to buy time for his receivers to get open, especially downfield.
Both McGee and Brohm would like to have a more balanced attack, but they haven’t been able to establish a true running game because there has been a lot of mixing and matching along their offensive line thus far on the season as the Blazers entered the season having had to replace four starters from a year ago (who had accounted for a total 136 career starts). In five games they have had three different starting lineups. Left tackle Chris Hubbard is the only linemen with previous starting experience and has started all five games this season. Billy Autrey has experience in playing everywhere along the line as a “utility man” of sorts but has settled in at center over the past two games and has given the line an “extra presence in the middle,” according to McGee. John Hix (who began the season as the starting center) and Cameron Blankenship are the starting guards. Blankenship is a 305 pound true freshman while Hix is a sophomore. Kaycee Ike has entrenched himself as he has started all five games at right tackle. Combined, they only average out to about 288 pounds per man, which is one of the smaller O-lines you’ll see in college football (besides the military institutions of course).
This lack of experience may hold the key to Bryant’s game plan as pressuring this young line will throw off the timing needed in order for the Blazers offense to succeed. Starting Will (weakside) linebacker Derrick Mathews (along with Steward) will probably blitz early and often as they lead the team with 10 and 9.5 tackles for loss respectively. In fact, the Cougars 40 tackles for loss have them tied for 21st in the nation while they also have 12 sacks (44th nationally) led again by Steward’s 4 and Mathews 3. The Cougars defensive line will also have to pressure this young Blazers O-line as they have allowed an ugly 17 sacks through five games which places them tied for 110th in the nation. The front four of Lloyd Allen and Zeke Riser (with Kelvin King and Eric Braswell backing them up) along with Joey Mbu and Radermon Scypion (with Dominic Miller and freshman Tomme Mark backing them up) will need to do a better job of pressuring Brown without the help of the blitz as the secondary will get burned deep if they are too aggressive. The one negative about Brown is that, like many young QBs, he will turn the ball over. He has thrown interceptions in their past two losses, both during the fourth quarter. He also fumbled the rock twice against Tulsa leading to scores in their close loss to the Golden Hurricane.
When the Cougars have the ball, look for them to continue doing what they have been doing, as in playing balanced as far as the running game is concerned. Coach Levine on offensive coordinator Travis Bush’s development as offensive coordinator during Tuesday’s weekly media press conference (via uhcougars.com), “Coach Bush has brought a lot of creativity to our offense. We are able to use a lot of misdirection and be multiple with our formations and things of that nature. It’s a compliment when people say the flow of the play was going left and the ball ends up going right. He is very good at keeping defenses off balanced and being unpredictable. He, as well as our entire offensive staff, has done a great job this season.” McGee reiterated the Cougars use of misdirection when he said (during his own media presser via uabsports.com), “They have multiple running sets. They have some exotic running plays that are really interesting plays. You have to be able to trust your rules and trust your technique to be able to slow him down. If you get caught looking in the backfield with all the stuff that is going on, he'll run right down the sideline. We have to be really good with our eyes, play our technique, and understand where our help is at all times, just play good team defense. That's what gives you a chance."
Of course this is easier said than done concerning the offenses use of misdirection, which especially helps the Coogs play-action game. Cougars QB David Piland has been improving each week and I don’t see anything changing this week against a below average UAB defense. Piland’s confidence seems to be rising each week as his accuracy improves, due in part to his receivers catching more balls which in turn helps his decision making. Piland also seems to be impressive in throwing on the run whether it be on a bootleg or a roll out off of play-action.
Reggie Johnson (like McGee himself) coached at Arkansas for the past four seasons before joining McGee as the Blazers defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He (like Brohm) also played for Louisville during the late 80s (as a defensive lineman). Because his front seven is on the smaller side, Johnson likes to use their quickness and blitz frequently but the Blazers only have 9 sacks on the season and while only giving up 194 passing yards per game (good for 28th nationally), they surrender 186 rushing yards (89th) because of both their lack of size and depth up front. Their front four of Diaheem Watkins and Chris Walton at end along with Connor Boyett (a converted end) and Deric Scott at tackle combine to average only 267.5 pounds per man. While both ends are both in the 260 pound range it’s their two defensive tackles, who in only averaging 276 pounds, whom hurt in their rushing defense up the middle. Both Watkins (considered the leader of the line) and Walton have 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks each.
It doesn’t help that the Blazers linebackers are also on the small side as Jack (or strong side) linebacker Greg Irvin (218), Mike (or middle) backer Marvin Burdette (230) and Will (weakside) Patrick Bastien (227) only combine to weigh around 225 pounds per man. Burdette is all over the field in Johnson’s defense as the defensive leader as he leads the team in tackles (46), tackles for loss (4), sacks (2) interceptions and fumbles recovered (1 each). He returned his lone interception 36 yards for a TD. Irvin is second with 33 tackles. Unlike Burdette and Irvin, who are both seniors, Bastien (a junior) has not picked up the scheme quite as well and has only contributed 13 tackles in five games. Look for Bush to try to create situations where he has to cover one of the Cougars lightning bug quick slot receivers in a one-on-one matchup. After not having a catch last week (one week after lightning up Rice), look for true freshman receiver Larry McDuffy to exploit the middle of the Blazers zone defense as they have an inexperienced secondary.
Cornelius Richards is their lone experienced returner at corner as he has the size (6-feet-1, 180 pounds) to deal with outside receiver Deontay Greenberry. One week after having his best game, look for Bush to get the ball into the true freshman’s hands early and often. At the other corner slot is Lamarcus Farmer. The redshirt freshman is playing nicely despite his inexperience as he has a combined 8 passes defended/broken up (as that’s almost Hayden territory). The two safeties, Jake Ganus and Calvin Jones, have contributed 28 and 26 tackles respectively. Ganus, a true freshman, also has three tackles for loss and one interception. Along with Daniel Spencer (in the slot) and Dewayne Peace (outside) look for newcomer Xavier Maxwell to receive more playing time along the outside as well, as Levine mentioned on Tuesday. The former JC transfer averaged nearly 27 yards per reception at Blinn JC.
With as little pressure as the front seven have placed on opposing offensive lines, the secondary has had a difficult time in corralling opposing passing games, despite the low passing yardage totals given up. Of course they have given up a lot of yards on the ground and this should continue (and be the difference actually) in this game as the Cougars offensive line of Rowdy Harper and Ralph Oragwu (at tackle), Ty Cloud and Jacolby Ashworth (at guard) and Kevin Forsch (at center) have a decided advantage against the Blazers outmanned front four (or seven for that matter). Coach Bush would be smart to use the reigning CUSA ‘Player of the Week’ Charles Sims, in much the same way as he has in the past few games – up the middle on draw plays or on the edges in their inside zone running scheme (as well as in the passing game). Another 200 yard rushing game isn’t out of the question if the Cougars can wear down the Blazers defensive line. Kenneth Farrow has also nicely contributed to the rushing game, complimenting Sims as the bruising back Michael Hayes and Bryce “Brick” Beall have been over the past few years. After rushing for 85 yards versus North Texas last week, the redshirt freshman is averaging 6.4 yards per carry (to Sims 6.5).
One aspect not to overlook in this game is the play of the special teams as UAB has blocked three kicks/punts already this season (including one at Ohio State against a head coach in Urban Myer whom places a major emphasis on special teams from his days of winning national championships at Florida). Coverage wise the Blazers aren’t that special as they allow nearly 26 yards per kickoff return and 10 yards per punt return. This could be good news considering the Coogs haven’t found reliable return men yet, though Farrow had a nice 33 yard kickoff return last week and McDuffy returned one 29 yards versus Rice. Jamie Christian’s punt return unit still hasn’t found a true punt returner yet, as Peace is only averaging a meager 3.4 yards on 8 returns. The Cougars coverage units have been excellent as of late, especially on kickoff returns due to the deep and high kickoffs of Richie Leone, who also leads the NCAA in punting, averaging exactly 48 yards on 25 punts. Kicker Matt Hogan has regained his mojo after missing two consecutive kicks as he connected on all three against North Texas (including a 50 yarder). Leone’s high school teammate is UAB kicker Ty Long. The sophomore has connected on 23 of 27 career field goals (7 of 8 this season including two 50+ yarders).
Overall, while this game has the potential to be a shootout that comes down to which team has the ball last, I feel the Cougars physical pounding rushing attack will wear down the Blazers defensive front as the Coogs pull away late, (after a close first half). Just a season ago, who would have ever thought the Cougars up-tempo no huddle ‘Air Raid’ would become a ‘pound the rock’ ball control type of offense (especially in the second halves of games)? Defensively, the Coogs will pressure the young Blazers’ QB into just enough mistakes to cancel out their lethal up tempo passing attack, once again negating Houston’s weakness – tight coverage (or lack thereof) in the secondary.