Game 10 Preview – Tulsa

The Houston Cougars host the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa in a key Conference USA Western division clash Saturday afternoon at Robertson Stadium. Game time for this homecoming game is set for 4PM (CST) and will be televised by the CBS College Sports Network (CBSSN).

Football is a game that’s won or lost in the trenches, and no other team in CUSA (along with UCF) typifies this philosophy than the Golden Hurricane, who brings a 7-2 record to Saturday’s game, with an undefeated mark in conference play (5-0). Tulsa, under second year head coach Bill Blankenship (15-7), leads the conference in not only rushing yards offensively (274.2 yards per game in conference games only while they are 15th nationally with a 232.9 yard per game average) but in rush defense as well (allowing 90.8 yards per game in conference games while their 122.7 yards in all games rank them 25th nationally). Their dominance up front along both lines of scrimmage not only help rank them third in the conference in scoring (40 points per game), but fourth in scoring defense at 25 ppg.

Offensively, under second year coordinator Greg Peterson, Tulsa’s scheme can be labeled as a ‘power spread’ scheme but in reality they are multiple. They rank third in the conference in total offense (476.8 yards per game) and are balanced despite averaging only a tad over 200 yards passing per game (10th in conference play). Overall they rank 38th nationally in averaging 443 yards per game (210 through the air), and are led by Nebraska transfer Cody Green at quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 245 pound redshirt junior is 11-2 as a starter at both schools (4-0 at Nebraska over two seasons). Maybe the only weakness of their offense is the passing game, as the Dayton, Texas native is barely completing a tad over 50 percent of this throws this season (129 of 242) with 10 TDs to 6 interceptions. Of course this can be said to be caused by a right shoulder injury suffered at Marshall during week six. The shoulder bruise caused him to miss the Rice game in which they barely survived, winning 28-24 on a last minute fourth quarter drive. His top receiving threat is Keyarris Garrett who has 537 yards on 40 receptions (13.4 yard per catch average) with 5 TDs. The Daingerfield, Texas native has added about 20 pounds of muscle over the course of one off-season and is now a stout 210 pounds (at 6’4). The true sophomore would have been matched up one-on-one most of the day with Cougars cover corner D.J. Hayden, who has returned his four interceptions for an average of 43 yards (including two ‘pick-sixes’ returned for touchdowns), but unfortunately for the Cougars probably will not play for the rest of the season as he suffered an undisclosed injury during practice late Tuesday evening. True freshman Adrian McDonald has impressed with his play at corner in relieving Hayden and will probably start in Hayden’s place. The Golden Hurricane’s second leading receiver (receptions wise) is H-back Willie Carter with 29 receptions (for 242 yards and 2 TDs). At 6’2, 235 pounds, the Crocket, Texas native is a match-up nightmare as he’s too big for smaller defensive backs yet his precise route running and deceptive speed are mismatches for linebackers who are usually slower. Containing him will probably be shared amongst the three Cougars linebackers (depending on where Carter lines up on the field), Phillip Steward at the strongside, Everett Daniels at the Mike (or middle) and Derrick Mathews along the weakside (Will). Steward usually lines up in the slot covering running backs or tight ends and will probably get the first shot at containing Carter. Steward is second on the team in total tackles (94), tackles for loss (15), interceptions (2) and is first in sacks (9). His sack and tackles for loss totals are both ranked 6th nationally.

For most games this season against the Cougars defense, it hasn’t been opposing offenses first or second options that have hurt them in the passing game, but the third or fourth options due to the lack of production at the corner back spot opposite of Hayden, which is shared by Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates. Although both have played for a few seasons, bigger receivers have often taken advantage of their lack of size (both are listed at 5’10) and weight (both are under 180 pounds). The third and forth receivers for Tulsa that McMillian and Bates will be responsible for are Jordan James (22 receptions for 298 yards with 2 TDs) and Thomas Roberson (14 for 305 with 3 TDs), both of whom excel at working the edges in the passing game. Both are physically gifted and are over 6’2 and 195 pounds. James is a slot receiver whom can go deep as can Roberson (who leads the team with a 21.8 yard per reception average). Cougars defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant must do a better job at mixing up his coverages in the back end or his defensive backs will continue to get burned, much as they have over the course of their five conference games in allowing 296 passing yards per game which ranks them only worse than UAB’s 316. In the Cougars zone passing scheme, strong safeties Colton Valencia and Kent Brooks are usually the last lines of defense and must be sound tacklers this game or the Tulsa receivers will eat up yards through the air. Through nine games overall, the Cougars defense allows opponents to pass for 289 yards per game (115th out of 124 teams in FBS play).

If the Cougars defense wants to sustain any type of success against the Golden Hurricane, they must at least contain Tulsa’s vaunted running game. As Tulsa’s running stats pointed out earlier prove, this is much easier said than done as the Hurricane have many weapons in the ground game, led by running backs Ja’Terian Douglas, Trey Watts, Alex Singleton along with Green (in the QB ‘read option’ game which always seems to give the Coogs defense trouble). The 5’11, 190 pound Douglas is their leading rusher with 721 yards on 94 carries with 6 TDs on the ground. The Arlington, Texas native is their ‘home run’ threat out of the backfield as he has four runs of over 60 yards (with a long of 81) that have helped him average 7.7 yards per rush. Singleton is the big bruising inside runner and is third on the team with 506 yards on 116 carries. At 6’1, 260 pounds, Singleton likes to punish anyone that gets in his way. He is obviously used in short yardage and goal line situations as his 16 rushing TDs (which ranks him fifth nationally) would attest. With Douglas being the ‘home run hitter’ and Singleton the bruising inside runner, Watts is probably a combination of the two. He can run inside yet is shifty enough to hit the big gainer outside of the tackles as he averages 6.4 yards each time he rushes (588 yards on 92 carries with 3 TDs). Watts is the Hurricanes best all-around back as he can line up in the slot (229 yards on 18 receptions) and is used as a kickoff returner as he is fourth nationally in averaging over 34 yards per return. Peterson will also use Watts in ‘Wildcat’ formations as well.

In order to stop Tulsa’s running game, the Cougars defensive line must do a better job at maintaining gap-control as they have been unable to get off of blocks all season. The line is being pushed out of their assigned lanes which allow huge holes for opposing QBs and RBs to rush through untouched. Overall, the defense is allowing 132 yards on the ground in conference games (fifth) and 182 overall (85th nationally). Tulsa’s offensive line has only allowed five sacks through nine games, ranking them fourth nationally. Surprisingly, in this day of huge offensive lines, Tulsa’s only averages to about 292 pounds per man, led by senior Center Trent Dupy (who has 36 career starts), left tackle Jared Grigg (25 career games), right tackle Brian DeShane (13 starts in 31 career games) and right guard Stetson Burnett (20 career starts). The only new starter is sophomore left guard Jake Alexander. Cougar defensive tackles Joey Mbu and Radermon Scypion will need to get low in order to gain leverage on Tulsa’s interior linemen in order to push the line of scrimmage back. Dominic Miller, Tomme Mark and Jeremiah Farley must also contribute when called upon inside. At end, Zeke Riser, Lloyd Allen, Kelvin King and Eric Braswell must do a better job at keeping containment along the edge or Green will run all over the Cougars defense. Bryant may assign a ‘spy’ on Green, whether it be one of the linebackers or free safety Trevon Stewart, who has become a tackling machine as the true freshman leads the defense with 94 total tackles (44 solo). Stewart, Steward and Mathews will be key in containing Tulsa’s running game as all three will most assuredly be both pass and run blitzing often. The Cougars front seven must punish Green and hit him often if they hope to slow down this high powered Tulsa offense.

Defensively, under second year coordinator Brent Guy, the Golden Hurricane are very aggressive as they lead CUSA and are fourth nationally with 34 sacks. Conversely, the Cougars are second and tenth respectively with 28 sacks. Tulsa is first in CUSA and third nationally, with 77 tackles for loss with the Cougars second and sixth respectively. The major difference between the two teams is that while the Cougars love to blitz, Tulsa relies on pressuring the QB with mainly their front four (with an occasional linebacker or safety blitz thrown in to confuse the offense). At defensive end, Jared St. John and Cory Dorris are solid, if not consistent, as they have combined for 13.5 tackles for loss on the season. St. John’s seven sacks are second on the team. Tackles Daeshon Bufford and Derrick Jackson are both true run stoppers and provide the size (6’2, 293 pound average) that the two ends don’t (255 pound combined average). Bufford’s 7 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks are both third on the team while Jackson has shown much more consistency this season.

DeAundre Brown may be small for a middle linebacker, but the 5’11, 217 pound Arlington, Texas native leads the team in tackles 93 (61 solo), tackles for loss (14.5 which also ranks him 12th nationally) and sacks (8) yet is also effective in pass coverage as he has 5 pass breakups and 1 interception as well. The weakside linebacker, Shawn Jackson, moves well for a big man (250 pounds) as he is third on the team with 51 tackles. These front five must be handled by the Cougars offensive line, who has struggled to protect Cougars QB David Piland the past few games. When SMU and ECU can get to the QB with nary a three man rush, Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush should be worried about this Tulsa defensive front that has exposed all each of its CUSA opponents along the line. The Cougars offensive line of (from left to right) Rowdy Harper, Ty Cloud, Kevin Forsch, Jacolby Ashworth and Ralph Oragwu must keep Piland clean against a Tulsa front that likes to twist and stunt a lot. Last week at Arkansas, Tulsa’s defense hit Razorback QB Tyler Wilson early and often. He wasn’t sacked too many times, but the hits affected him later in the game as he was shown throwing off of his back foot quite a few times in the fourth quarter at the fear of their rush. As most Coog fans realize by now, this fear (real or imagined) is something that Piland has been guilty of plenty this season.

To counter this rush, the Cougars first year offensive coordinator would be wise to establish an early ground game, or at least try, with or without running back Charles Sims. The Cougars leading rusher (849 yards on 139 carries) is listed as doubtful as he sprained an ankle last week at ECU. Last week Bush had Sims rush only four times (for 12 yards) in the first quarter, even though they were down by only 14 points after one. If Sims is unable to go, his backup Kenneth Farrow will assume lead back duties. The redshirt sophomore averages over five yards each time he rushes (253 yards on 48 carries). True freshman Ryan Jackson has struggled this season as he doesn’t even average three yards per rush but may receive a few touches early as he is allusive outside of the tackles. Braxton Welford (86 yards on 14 carries) has barely received any playing time at all as a rusher in any close games (though he is a demon on special teams). At 205 pounds, the redshirt senior might be able to team with Farrow in establishing a between-the-tackles running game if given the opportunity. Even Piland himself is athletic enough to run a few QB ‘read option’ plays of his own to loosen up Tulsa’s defensive front. Even getting Piland out of the pocket by rolling him out will avoid having the Golden Hurricane teeing off on the young redshirt sophomore, who had a below average game last week even though the Coogs are still second in the conference in passing (340 yards per game).

In the passing game, Piland must make quick decisions and get the ball out of his fast as this is another way to defeat an aggressive pass rush. As with any aggressive defense, Tulsa is vulnerable to ‘quick hitters,’ whether they be wide receiver or running back screens, shallow crossers (crossing routes), or swing passes to the backs out of the backfield. Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson abused Tulsa last Saturday as he was left unaccounted for coming out of the backfield several times, all for big yards. Farrow averages nearly nine yards on his 14 receptions and had a bull of a run on a 21 yard TD scamper after catching a dump off pass in which he bulled over a Pirate defender for the last three yards of his first receiving TD of the season.

If a ground game is established by the Houston offense, the passing game will be that much more effective. The wide receiver core has been too inconsistent this season, dropping way too many passes (granted quite a few have been uncatchable). Leading receiver Daniel Spencer (569 yards on 42 receptions) must catch the balls that hit his hands as he should be able to find holes in Tulsa’s zone coverage. Fellow slot receivers Larry McDuffy (351 yards on 22 receptions) and Shane Ros (285, 18) have probably been the most consistent receivers and must continue to do so in order to keep the chains moving. Outside receiver Deontay Greenberry (363, 33) has played like a true freshman this season, which is no surprise considering he is indeed, a true freshman. If Greenberry and fellow outside receiver Mark Roberts could make some plays deep it would take the pressure off of the offense as a whole, which has had to ‘dink and dunk’ its way to scores far too often this season. Speaking of making plays, Isaiah Sweeney was a welcome sight last Saturday in his first game of the season as he caught 3 passes for 93 yards including a score. Unfortunately the redshirt senior is questionable for Tulsa as it looks as if he hurt the same foot that’s kept him out the entire season.

Covering these receivers for Tulsa will be corner backs Lowell Rose, John Flanders along with ball hawking safeties Dexter McCoil and DeMarco Nelson. Rose is athletically build (6’1, 190) and is second on the team with 2 interceptions and tied for first with 6 pass breakups. Flanders is smaller (5’10, 170) but knows how to play the game as he has 22 career starts entering this season. McCoil plays a position referred to as the ‘Bandit’ which is a combination safety/linebacker, and if anybody has the size to play it, it’s the programs all time leader in interceptions (16 and counting). At 6’4, 225 pounds, McCoil has the range to cover smaller receivers yet is big enough to run blitz as well. McCoil is the second leading tackler with 59, but first in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (tied with Rose with 6). At free safety, Nelson is a great open field tackler (fourth with 51 tackles) and is responsible for lining up the secondary in the correct positions.

Another aspect of the game the Cougars have struggled in (while Tulsa has not), is special teams. In conference play, the Coogs are last in punt (3.2 yards per return) and second to last in kickoff returns (17.3 yards per return). With Dewayne Peace being indefinitely suspended (although he was ineffective in the role), the punt return job seems to be Damian Payne’s (although he has only returned two on the season, for one yard). Kickoff returns are being shared by McDuffy and fellow receiver Marcus Williams. For Tulsa, Watts is fourth in the nation averaging just a tad over 34 yards per return, while averaging 6.6 yards on 11 punt returns. Both teams are in the middle of the pack in kickoff and return coverage. One major weakness for Tulsa could be their kicking game, where true freshman Daniel Schwarz has connected on only 8 of 13 attempts this season. The ever reliable Matt Hogan has connected on 14 of 18 this season and 48 of 53 on his career for an outstanding 83 percent success rate. Punter Richie Leone continues to flip the field on opponents with his punting prowess as he is ninth nationally in averaging 45.6 yards per punt. Tulsa’s punter, 6’8 Cole Way, is averaging 41 yards per punt.

As the season winds down, the old saying is that you are what your record says you are, and the Cougars are a below .500 team at 4-5 while Tulsa is battling for the CUSA championship (with the help of quite a few Texans as nearly 25 percent of their student-athletes hail from the great state of Texas - 24 of the 104 members listed from their roster via tulsahurricane.com). The only way I see Tulsa losing Saturday is if they make mistakes like they did last Saturday at Arkansas, where they fumbled snaps twice in the redzone, and left five points on the field in a 19-15 loss in Fayetteville (one missed field goal and two extra points). Basically it’s going to take Tulsa beating themselves which they do not do often as they are 33rd nationally (and third in conference play) with a plus five turnover margin, while the Cougars are 98th (9th in conference) with a minus six turnover margin. In the end, winning teams find ways to win, while losing teams find a way to lose as the Cougars have looked unprepared in their losses and have not shown the ability to overcome early deficits. If the Cougars can get out to an early lead and take advantage of some early Tulsa mistakes they might gain the confidence needed to avoid this Hurricane Warning and win on Homecoming.


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