While the Cougars had no trouble moving the ball from 20 to 20, the redzone offense was the difference in this game being close instead of being a blowout. The Cougars managed 524 total yards of offense, including 219 on the ground (for a season total of 591 through two games), yet could only score 22 points. This inept output was based off of having to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns on four of their total seven trips inside the redzone. Of their SEVEN trips inside the Owls TEN yard line, the offense could only manage a measly four field goal attempts along with one TD (which came in the final minute when the Cougars were trying to run out the clock). With a total of 19 plays being run inside Temple's 10-yard line, the Cougars offense could manage to cross the goal line only once, with running back Ryan Jackson's 10 yard draw giving the Cougars their final points with just more than a minute left remaining in the game. UH Head Coach Tony Levine on the ineffectiveness inside the red zone via uhcougars.com, "A couple of times, we may have had a poor decision in terms of executing a specific play, and we'll get those things cleaned up. We need to get them cleaned up. We can't rely on three points every time. With what we do offensively, we have to get the ball in the end zone."
Those ‘poor decisions' Levine is referring to came from quarterback John O'Korn, who decided to pull the ball down and run on four different occasions inside the redzone, with three of them being decisions to keep the ball on zone read option plays when maybe he should have handed the ball off to his backs. Hindsight is always 20/20 after the fact, plus with O'Korn being just a true freshman playing in only his second college game (and first on the road), he'll definitely have to adjust to faster more physical defenses at the college level. In all, O'Korn called his own number seven times (nine total adding in two sacks by Temple's defense) for a net total of 20 yards (including minus 17 on the two sacks). That's probably more than offensive coordinator Doug Meacham would prefer, but again – Cougar fans will have to learn to expect these kinds of mistakes and hope the true freshman learns from them. The other aspect of the inefficient redzone offense came from a combination of play calling, along with the loss of RB Kenneth Farrow (9 carries for 78 yards for a robust 8.7 yards per rush). Farrow, Meacham's designated beast between-the-tackles, was lost to a lower leg injury midway through the second quarter (with the scored tied at 6) after coming down awkwardly on his leg after being flipped at the conclusion of a nice 17 yard run to get the Cougars to the Owls two yard line. After a carry for one yard by Justin Hicks (5 carries for 8 yards) and two passes to the endzone by O'Korn (the last an incompletion on a fade), Richie Leone was trotted out for his third field goal attempt of the game. Why Ryan Jackson (who had 58 yards on only 6 carries to that point) wasn't used at that point is beyond me as you probably don't want your first carry of the game to be at the opponents' 2-yard line midway through the second quarter, which was the case for Hicks. For the game Jackson totaled 109 yards on 22 carries (with the aforementioned TD) for a two game total of 229 yards on 32 carries (7.1 average per rush) with 3 TDs. Also on Meacham's play calling; when you line up in the diamond formation (three backs lined up alongside and behind the QB), four straight times inside the ten yard line (which Meacham had the offense doing during the Cougars second possession of the second half down 13-12 at the time), chances are the opponent's defensive coordinator will know what your game plan is. Why not spread the field out with four wides to create lanes and space ‘inside the box' to create more running room for your backs? This is what's allowed the offense to gain as many yards as they have this season on the ground. Of course Meacham's been coaching far longer than I have (26 years to zero) and he's still learning his personnel so he'll get the benefit of the doubt early on in the season.
One thing Coogfans can take from this game is the dawning of the O'Korn era has arrived, hopefully anyway. While David Piland is a nice enough guy (by all accounts), it appears as if his time has come and gone as the redshirt junior has had ample enough opportunity over the past three seasons to prove he was man for the job. With a career 7-12 record as a starting QB and Saturday's performance in which he completed only 6 of his 17 passes (and 3 of his final 12) for 72 yards, it looks as if the offense just responds better to O'Korn, who completed 23 of his 31 passes for 233 yards. For the season ‘Big John' is completing nearly 75 percent of his passes (34 for 46) to Piland's 53 percent (21 of 40) which is needed in the ‘Air Raid' as the Cougars offense is based on the QB completing quick short passes in order to continually move the chains using a fast pace without a huddle. In Piland's defense, his completion percentage would be much higher if some of his wide receivers would manage to hang onto the ball. Of course Piland's 52 percent this season is close to his career 57 percent career completion percentage, which just won't get it done as incompletions just kill the momentum of this offense, especially since the pace is so fast (running 88 and 96 total plays in the first two games respectively) which leads to tiring out the defense if there are too many ‘3 and outs.'
Receiver Deontay Greenberry had arguably his best game as a Cougar with 14 receptions for 165 yards(one week after catching 6 balls for 70 yards) with many of them coming on quick slants off of zone read play action fakes from O'Korn. The true sophomore said as much during post-game interviews, "we pretty much knew what they were doing on first and second down and pretty much executed a certain play based on what they were doing. That's pretty much where all my balls came from." Greenberry was moved to an inside receiver (from his spot outside last season) in order to take advantage of being covered by slower safeties or linebackers and being able to find the holes in opponents zone schemes. Fellow inside receiver Daniel Spencer had only 3 catches for 40 yards one week after accumulating 102 yards on 9 receptions and 2 TDs. The middle of the field is open mainly because the Cougars' first two opponents have decided to ‘lock down' outside receivers Larry McDuffey and Xavier Maxwell in man coverage with their cornerbacks. On the season, McDuffey only has 17 yards on 4 total receptions with Maxwell 99 and 11 respectively. One main problem appears to be Maxwell's inability to hold onto the ball as he's dropped five passes (by my count) this season thus far along with one fumble (inside the Cougars 35 with the game still in doubt late in the third quarter this past Saturday). His starting job could be in jeopardy once Markeith Ambles is more acclimated to the offense (maybe the Rice game).
The Cougars offensive line of Rowdy Harper, DeAnthony Sims, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson (from left to right tackle), with Alex Cooper, Emeka Okafor and Austin Lunsford in reserve gave the QBs enough time in the pocket and opened up nice holes for the backs in their zone blocking schemes. With Ralph Oragwu (who started last season at right tackle and this season at left) being lost for the season with an ACL tear last week and starting left guard Ty Cloud having yet to play in a game this season due to head and leg injuries, the offensive line has been able to build up a decent amount of depth by force-feeding a few players who might not have seen the field otherwise. One thing the line HAS to clean up however are the penalties as Forsch had another holding call that wiped away a TD run by Jackson late in the game.
Defensively through two games this season, the Cougars have allowed an average of only 336 yards per game (103 on the ground) and more importantly – 26 total points. While one could say those numbers have as much to do with the opponents woefully inept offense (we are talking Southern and Temple here), the fact is that the unit is gaining confidence in their scheme, led by coordinator David Gibbs. The first year head coach had stated earlier during spring practices that his first order of business was to instill some confidence in his unit as hopefully they would forget about the horrible defensive play of past years. Through two games, including Saturday's game at Temple, they appear to be doing just that as the front four of ends Eric Braswell, Cameron Malveaux, Eric Eiland, Trevor Harris and Tyus Bowser with tackles Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark, Jeremiah Farley, B.J. Singleton and Josh McNeil are more than holding their own up front especially in terms of containment against two mobile QBs along with shutting down inside running lanes for the most part. With Eiland missing the game at Temple, both Harris and Bowser had nice games at the designated weak side ‘rush end' spot pressuring the QB quite a few times despite not getting any sacks. Farley had one sack, forced fumble and tackle for loss with Braswell contributing a sack among the defensive front. Penalties once again hurt the defense especially with a late hit by Braswell extending a Temple drive late.
The line backing core was the heart and soul of the defense on Saturday, led once again by middle linebacker Derrick Mathews, who added 13 tackles Saturday to his 9 the previous week. Strong side backer Efrem Oliphant was a force in Temple's backfield Saturday with 2 tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble and starting weak side backer George Bamfo created havoc all over the field though his stats might not show it. On the back end, free safety Trevon Stewart led the way with 8 tackles a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Strong safety Adrian McDonald iced the game late with an interception which he almost returned for a pick-six (returning it 38 yards to the Temple 12 yard line). Like Stewart, McDonald (though he may be young as both are true sophomores) is a ball hawk that is slowly yet surely becoming a play maker on defense as he seems to produce at least one game changing play (turnover) per game. Cornerbacks Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates had nice games with McMillian intercepting the first pass of the game and Bates adding six tackles. Both are better tacklers this season as both corners have had at least one nice one-on-one open field tackle in each game.
Overall, Gibbs has the defense confusing opponents as Temple's QB Connor Reilly said after the game via uhcougars.com, "The Houston defense did a great job. From last week to this week, they played a little hungrier than I believe the Notre Dame defense did. They played a lot of cover-3, man, and some cover-2. It was regular defense, they pressured some." Gibbs has the defense applying pressure from different spots, even within his front seven using both Harris and Bowser on several stunts in which they looped around inside the tackles from their end spots. He also has the linebackers blitzing through the "A" gaps, especially Oliphant, early on in the season. Most importantly, even though the defense has allowed yards between the 20s, they have allowed minimum scoring opportunities and have forced FIVE total turnovers, with the offense scoring off of four of them (two TDs and two FGs).
Leone is probably the team MVP at this point of the season as he's connected on 7 of 8 field goal attempts, missing only his first attempt Saturday, a 35 yarder in which he appeared to push to the left as soon as he attempted it. He's also averaged nearly 45 yards on his 6 punts pinning opponents inside their 20 on 4 of them. On three punt returns, opponents have ‘gained' a nifty minus seven yards. Of his 15 kickoffs that weren't touchbacks (9), he's given good enough hang time to allow his coverage teams to get to opposing kick returners as they've averaged only 16 yards per return. The special teams unit is still having problems on punt returns as McDuffey has apparently been replaced by receiver Damian Payne, who only had 6 yards on 2 returns (though he did have one nice 15 yarder that was nullified by a penalty). He seems to have the same problem as McDuffey (who only returned 2 last week for 2 yards), in that he is hesitant and ‘dances' once he catches the ball. A good punt returner will run as soon as he catches the punt, trying to juke the defenders after he's in motion. Payne looked as if he was trying to figure out where to run before actually running, giving away precious seconds in which he could be gaining yardage. At least he was decisive in his fair catches unlike McDuffey, who ‘muffed' a few attempts last week thus giving the opportunity to Payne this past weekend. With the off-week this will be an area that will definitely need to be focused on. Kick return wise, receiver Demarcus Ayers seems to have the spot wrapped up as he's the only Cougar to have returned a kick thus far this season with 124 yards on 5 returns, good for 24.8 yards per return.
Overall both Meacham and Gibbs have proven to be on-the-money hires as coordinators in a stark contrast from last season. Both, however, still have a lot "to clean up" in terms of mistakes (such as penalties and plays left out on the field that could determine the difference between a winning and losing season) with an off-week looming as the team prepares to play a much improved Rice Owls team on Saturday September the 21st at Reliant.