are guaranteed only their third losing season in the past ten years while also forgoing bowl eligibility for just the third time in the same time span.
If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season that the Coogs would have lost this game by this score, I probably would have believed you as this is one of the two games I had the team losing in yet another run to a conference championship, in this last season as a member of Conference USA. I also would have not been surprised by the valiant comeback by UH, led by fifth year senior Crawford Jones (replacing an injured David Piland), as the Coogs of the past few years have had many epic come from behind victories. Unfortunately for this year's team, the only thing surprising about this loss was that the team actually showed some fortitude in coming back as they had lost their previous three road games by an average score of 53-25.
In following an all too familiar script, the Cougars came out yesterday on a beautiful 50 degree day at Marshall's Joan C. Edwards Stadium and laid an egg early on in falling behind 17-0 in the first half, 31-10 at halftime and 38-17 early in the third quarter before rallying behind Jones. Jones, the former walk-on, completed an un-Piland like 70 percent of his passes (31 of 44 for 316 yards with 5 passing TDs), but was especially effective in the second half where he passed for 4 of his TDs, while also completing 17 of his 21 passes for 225 yards. Jones passes had the touch that Piland's had been lacking throughout the season, with many being placed in windows where only UH receivers could catch them. Another huge difference between the redshirt senior and redshirt sophomore was poise under pressure. Whenever Jones was under duress he kept his cool in the pocket long enough to make extend a play. One example coming on a 4th & 1 early in the third quarter in which Jones fumbled the snap, yet was composed enough to pick it up, scramble to his left long enough to find receiver Deontay Greenberry along the sideline for a 14 yard gain. Three plays later Jones would toss a laser along the back of the endzone for a 4 yard TD to Xavier Maxwell, bringing the Cougars to within 14 points, at 31-17, and the comeback was on. In seven second half possessions, Jones would lead the Cougars to TDs in four of them along with a field goal, which would tie the game at 41 with just over a minute to go in the game. The only two ineffective possessions of the half were the first and last (in which there were only 7 seconds to operate and 80 yards to cover). The second half was a stark contrast from the first half for Jones, who passed for only 91 yards (completing 14 of his 23 attempts). Nerves might have had something to do with the slow start as this was his first career start. Nevertheless, things did not look pretty in the early going as the team looked unprepared to play in all three phases of the game. Offensively the game could not have begun any uglier than it did for Jones as he led the team to three ‘three and outs' on four of their first five possessions (with a loan four play possession coming only after Jones completed a 10 yard pass to Charles Sims, which he would subsequently fumble with it fortunately be recovered by right guard DeAnthony Sims who played for the injured Jacolby Ashworth). Things were so bad early on that walk-on receiver Shane Ros was used at QB for a possession. In the first quarter alone, Marshall ran 30 plays for 152 yards and two scores (giving them an early 10-0 lead) to Houston's 13 and 21 respectively. It's been an all too familiar theme this season in which the offense gets out to a very slow start, yet still operates at a warp-like pace via their ‘no-huddle spread' under offensive coordinator Travis Bush. During an interview we had earlier in the season, Bush told me the offense had the ability to slow things down, but that would only be if head coach Tony Levine ordered him to do so. This unfortunately, hasn't been the case too often this season as the coaching staff looks for the offense to push the tempo, even when struggling. The offense did start to gain a rhythm midway through the second quarter as Jones began picking apart a lacking Marshall secondary via the quick short passing game as he led them downfield to two scores to bring the Coogs to within 31-10 at the half.
As is the case when the offense starts clicking, it's usually due to the defense not being able to key in on just one receiver. Nine Cougars caught passes from Jones Saturday afternoon (6 receivers and 3 running backs), led by Greenberry's 60 yards on 6 receptions (with 1 TD). Ros was also a favorite target for Jones as the slot receiver caught 5 balls for 52 yards with 2 TDs, including one on my favorite pass play – a quick slant over the middle in which Ros took 19 yards to the house bringing the Coogs to within 14 (38-24) early in the third. Dewayne Peace was next in line with 5 receptions himself, for 44 yards. Slot receivers Ronnie Williams and Larry McDuffy contributed 4 catches each, Williams for 35 and McDuffy for 23 yards. Xavier Maxwell continues his stellar play as he continues to be one of the few receivers able to create enough separation down field as one of his two catches (for 62 total yards) came on a 58 yard post rout that brought the Coogs to within a score (38-31) on the second play of the fourth quarter. The three Cougars running backs, Sims, Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson caught a combined 6 passes for 57 yards (Farrow with 3 for 25, Sims 2 for 26 and Jackson 1 for 6 yards ), with many coming on check-downs from Jones.
Speaking of the running backs, Farrow yet again brought his A-game as he averaged 5.6 yards per rush on his 14 carries (for 78 yards), many of them coming between the tackle. Sims started, but was ineffective coming off of an ankle injury he suffered against East Carolina two games ago, as he rushed for only 2 yards on 3 carries as he seemed to lack the usual burst and was unable to cut back as he usually does. Jackson ran for 24 yards on 4 carries (one being for 20). Ros rushed for 3 yards on his 2 carries during his Ill-fated series as a ‘Wildcat' QB during the first quarter. McDuffy and Peace added two yards on two carries on ‘end-arounds' or ‘jet sweeps' in yet another aspect of the offense that seemed to be lacking compared to last season. The offensive line introduced a new starter in the aforementioned Sims, who was filling in for Ashworth. Hopefully Jacolby will be able to start next week in his last home game as a Cougar as it would be a shame for him not to, considering he has started 38 games over the past three seasons. The line played decently in allowing only two sacks on the game with the Cougars rushing for 133 yards (105 including losses on sacks and tackles for loss). The line gave Jones enough time in the second half to operate comfortably for the most part.
Defensively, under coordinator Jamie Bryant, the unit played inconsistent and undisciplined for the umpteenth time this season in allowing Marshall a staggering 665 yards of total offense (377 through the air with 288 on the ground). Of course the offensive play, or lack thereof, has something to do with it as far too often this season their struggles (too many ‘3 & outs') would hang the defense out to dry, so to speak. Even with being out on the field for most of the first quarter, the down linemen must do a better job in pressuring the quarterback without Bryant having to call a blitz. Due to the front fours lack of pressure, the linebackers yet again led the way as they accounted for all four of the teams' sacks and four of the five tackles for loss, behind Phillip Steward, Derrick Mathews and Everett Daniels. Steward amassed 16 total tackles including two for loss and a sack with Mathews and Daniels each adding 13 tackles. Daniels continued his improved play as the season has progressed as he also contributed two sacks and tackles for loss. His play of late has made it more difficult for Bryant to take him off of the field in their ‘nickel packages.' Unfortunately this has led to him having to cover smaller receivers out of the slot or backs out of the backfield and has been burned quite a few times this season. The starting front four of Lloyd Allen, Radermon Scypion, Joey Mbu and Zeke Riser combined for 16 total tackles (four each) but only one tackle for loss (Scypion) and no sacks. Their ability to shed one-on-one blocks allows easy running lanes that opposing offenses have taken advantage of the entire season. A Marshall team that hasn't been noted for their running game rushed for nearly 300 yards (288), led by Kevin Grooms 159. The sad part is that many of the 165 pound backs runs were right up the middle of the defense. Their lack of discipline in holding ‘containment' along the edge has allowed opposing QBs to hurt them rushing on read option plays, with one play in particular occurring in the third quarter from the Coogs 4-yard line in which Marshall's QB, Rakeem Cato, easily rushed for a TD giving the Herd a 38-17 lead. The lack of pressure also places the defensive backfield in compromising positions as Cato picked apart the undermanned secondary to the tune of 377 yards, on 32 of 50 passing. The sophomore QB threw for 3 TDs but was picked off twice (by corners Zach McMillian and true freshman Adrian McDonald which stopped potential scoring drives). McMillian, McDonald, Thomas Bates (at corner) and Kent Brooks (at strong safety) were all burned numerous times throughout the game, as was Trevon Stewart at free safety. The true freshman once again produced a game with double digits in tackles (12), as did McDonald, McMillian and Brooks (with 11 each). What probably bothered me the most was the defenses inability as a whole to stop Marshall's offense after a Cougars score, especially in the middle portion of the game, which killed the momentum the offense was trying to build. The defense did step up late in the second half however; as they stopped the Herd offense on three of five second half possessions in allowing the offense to score 21 unanswered points in tying the game up at 41. The defense also played better against the pass in the second half overall, holding Cato to 142 passing yards on 13 of 22 completions. If you're a true Cougars fan however, you just knew that Marshall would drive the field at the end of the game to win it, which is exactly what they did as Cato led them on an 8 play, 37 yard drive that led to the game winning field goal, including a 16 yard rush which placed them in field goal range.
Special teams was a mixed bag Saturday afternoon, with plenty of great plays offset by a few boneheaded plays that ultimately led to the loss. Richie Leone gave Marshall great starting field position (their 35 yard line) on their aforementioned final game winning drive after kicking the ball out of bounds just after the Coogs had just scored to tie the game at 41. Leone also struggled with his punting as he averaged 44.7 yards on his 6 punts, but only 30 on his first two after shanking both early in the game, giving Marshall nice field position on their first two scoring drives. The coverage teams were decent as they allowed only one punt return for ten yards and an average of 20 yards on 4 kickoff returns. The return game was exceptional for the first time this season and had a huge impact on the game, as the Cougars started their offense on their own 32 yard line on average. That starting field position is a huge difference over the normal starting field position, which usually occurred inside their 20-yard line. Not only were the return games productive, but creative as well under coordinator Jamie Christian. One kickoff return in particular many fans will remember as the same type of return that was named the ‘Music City Miracle' when Tennessee beat the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game in January of 2000. Late in the third quarter, true freshman Jarrett Irving caught the kickoff at the Cougars 21 and threw a lateral pass to Farrow, whom had blockers set in front of him for a return of 61 yards, to the Marshall 19-yard line. Jackson also had his best game returns wise, as he returned 4 kickoffs for a total of 133 yards (including a 59 yarder) for a 33 yard average. Irving returned a kickoff for 10 yards on top of Farrow's return for a total of 203 yards on 7 kickoffs. Damian Payne returned one punt for 6 yards and it's important to note that the return teams did not fumble the ball, which had been a problem this season. Kicker Matt Hogan connected on two field goals in two attempts and is 16 of 21 this season (55 of 67 for his career).
All in all, this loss was once again a total team effort as all three phases played well enough for the victory, yet made just enough mistakes to lose the game. And in yet a final reoccurring theme this season, coaching decisions once again played a part in the loss as this staff seems to neither be able to motivate the team to come out to play early on, or make the strategic decisions needed to win. The final straw coming with 1:33 on the clock and the Cougars sitting on Marshall's 10 yard line facing a 2nd & 6 trailing 41-38. With that much time remaining in the game, the goal should be not only to score (whether it be a field goal to tie it, or a TD to take the lead), but to also drain enough time off of the clock to not allow the Herd to drive down the field to win it. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened as Jones threw two incompletions leading to the tying field goal by Hogan. The situation was not helped by Jones himself during the game tying possession, as he took a sack that lost the offense nine yards they could ill afford to lose at that time. The two incompletions took a total of nine seconds off the clock, giving Marshall more than a minute, with two timeouts available, to drive the field for the winning score, and with the Cougars inconsistent defensive play, this is exactly what happened. A kickoff out of bounds by Leone only exasperated the situation, giving Marshall less field to drive for the winning score. Calling at least one running play would have forced Marshall to use one of their timeouts and with the way Farrow was running inside, it wasn't unfathomable to think that he could not have gained the first down which would have furthered drained the clock. This lack of in-game strategy (giving up on the running game far too soon offensively combined with blitzing too much defensively) combined with the lack of this staff being able to properly motivate the team to play early in each game has been their Achilles heel the entire season and needs to be rectified, whether by hiring new coordinators or a new staff altogether, in order to have any success next season as they move to the Big East.