The Cougars offense was balanced for the third straight game as they passed for 329 yards on 18 of 36 completions with three scoring strikes and rushed for 165 yards on 37 carries and a score in only 25 minutes of possession time. The quarterback tandem of John O'Korn and Greg Ward (who made his debut) are two true freshmen who have a huge learning curve and although it showed against the Owls, there was also a ton of potential shown on the field as well. On just the third play of the game offensively for the Coogs, O'Korn hit his favorite target, Deontay Greenberry, on a 61 yard post route to the one yard line. O'Korn, although a true freshman making his first collegiate start, must play better as he committed many mistakes such as; underthrew many of his passes (including the above mentioned to Greenberry) and an ill-advised pass falling backwards that should have been intercepted (if not dropped by a Rice safety) with the game still in doubt late in the 4th. O'Korn also threw behind or miscommunicated with his receivers all together as a few wrong routes were run. Rice's defense also tried to do everything they could to confuse the stand out from Florida Ft. Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas by blitzing linebackers and members of the secondary from every conceivable angle, via various zone blitzes. O'Korn's toughness can't be questioned as he took many physical shots from the Rice defense but as all true freshman, he needs to use more wide receivers and stop zeroing in on his first read as this is how he threw his first career interception as Rice's Phillip Gaines undercut a route to Greenberry after reading O'Korn's eyes late in the 1st quarter. For the game O'Korn completed 15 of his 33 passes for 281 yards with the aforementioned pick along with three TDs. On the positive side, O'Korn's TDs were passes of beauty including; a nicely thrown 25 yard slant to Daniel Spencer as he and Greenberry ran a double post on a scoring drive that took four plays and less than a minute swinging the momentum in the Coogs favor as they took a 17-13 lead right before halftime. On his second scoring strike, O'Korn hit Greenberry for a 28 yard score on the run as he broke containment from the pocket, giving the Coogs a 24-13 lead midway through the 3rd. O'Korn's final TD toss came off a beautifully designed 32 yard wheel route to Ryan Jackson on a 4th & 3. The play was perfectly designed as it came out of the ‘diamond formation' with the Owls expecting run.
Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham used Greg Ward effectively as a change of pace QB in his 2013 debut. On his very first play, the 5-foot-10, 175 pound Temple standout took the snap and ran 10 yards on a QB keeper up the middle. The play was nicely executed out of a 5 wide empty backfield set where even if the Rice defense knew Ward was running, they still wouldn't have been able to stop him as they were spread from sideline to sideline in order to account for all five receivers. Ward rushed 9 times for 80 yards, many by design. I would like to see a package for Ward include some speed option plays with him either keeping or pitching to Jackson along the edge. Defending the speed that Ward possesses would be very difficult for opposing defenses to stop, especially inside the redzone. Speaking of redzone offense, this is another huge area for improvement for this offense as they had to settle for yet another field goal after three stops inside the one on three consecutive rushing plays up the middle by both Ward and Jackson early in the 2nd. Overall, Ward completed all three of his passes for 48 yards including a deep 31 yard completion to Markeith Ambles (who also made his 2013 debut). As deep as the Cougars receivers are, it appears that O'Korn and David Piland (when healthy) are relying on only Greenberry and Spencer in the passing game. For the game Greenberry caught 6 balls for 146 yards and for the season has 381 yards on 26 receptions with two scores. Spencer had 76 yards on 4 receptions and has 218, 16 and 3 respectively on the season. Outside receivers Xavier Maxwell and Larry McDuffey had one catch for three yards for the game (Maxwell) and have only combined for 119 yards on 16 total receptions (with McDuffey only accounting for 17 yards on 4 receptions). Before the season started the offensive assistants spoke of the depth amongst the receiver core, but so far on the short season only Andrew Rodriquez has been targeted as he has 3 receptions for 30 yards. Look for Ambles to replace either Maxwell or McDuffey in the lineup soon if this trend continues, or if they continue to drop passes. While Maxwell or McDuffey didn't have any drops against Rice, Spencer had one and Greenberry a few (which could have been called pass interference penalties) in a continuing and unwanted trend. Also look for the Cougars QBs to use Jackson out of the backfield more especially on the types of wheel routes in which Jackson scored from as an opposing linebacker or safety just doesn't have the type of speed to keep up with the elusive 5'10, 185 pound sophomore.
The offensive line of Rowdy Harper, DeAnthony Sims, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson continue to open up holes in the Cougars zone running scheme effectively enough for the aforementioned Jackson to average over 100 yards through three games (105 to be exact as he has 316 yards on 51 total carries with 4 scores) and over 6 yards per rush. Before he went down with an ankle injury against Temple two weeks ago, Kenneth Farrow was the type of between the tackles rusher that was needed in this type of spread offense that would keep opposing defenses honest in not just gearing up to stop the Cougars up tempo air attack. The 5'11 215 pound redshirt sophomore had 175 yards on 29 carries for an above average 6 yards per rush average. His bruising style would have been a nice addition to the awful redzone offense over the past two games to be sure. On the bright side, the offense has done a great job in the running game from the 20 to the 20. Farrow's injury has shown the ineffectiveness of the reserve backs as converted safety Kent Brooks (5 yards on 2 carries this season) just doesn't look to have the instincts needed to be a threat running and walk on Justin Hicks (67 yards on 15 carries) is doing his best with limited ability but neither can effectively replace what Farrow brings to the backfield. For the season the Coogs are 20th nationally through 3 games averaging 252 yards per game on the ground and 11th in total offense with a robust 548 yards per game. Harper left the game late with what appeared to be a lower leg injury with Ty Cloud also making his 2013 season debut. Cloud entered the game at his usual left guard spot with Sims moving over to left tackle late in the game. The depth along the line is also in good hands with youngsters Emeka Okafor, Alex Cooper and Austin Lunsford providing breathers in relief.
Entering the game against the Krispies, I was worried about both the physical style and effective perimeter rushing of the Owls as their spread option style of offense has usually given the Cougars defense fits in the past. While still rushing for 174 yards on 45 carries for the game, the Coogs defense limited both the inside handoffs to the bigger Rice backs and did a very good job on their outside ‘speed option' runs that hammered both Texas A&M and Kansans in the Owls previous two games. By my unofficial count (and not including 23 yards lost on 3 sacks) the Owls rushed up the middle 39 times for 181 yards for a decent but not game changing 4.6 yards per carry. On the speed option pitches or runs to the outside off of zone read options, the Owls only ran 4 times for 25 yards with only one long run (21 yards by Charles Ross). Defensive coordinator David Gibbs used multiple fronts in trying to confuse Rice's veteran QB (Taylor McHargue) even dropping 8 into coverage, giving the Owls QB easy completions on quick passes to the outside but effectively limiting the Owls vaunted rushing game.
Even in blitzing less than usual, the Cougars front four of Trevor Harris, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Tyus Bowser repeatedly hurried McHargue into forced passes as my unofficial count includes 13 QB hurries, 6 knockdowns and 3 sacks. Along with Ward, Saturday was a definite ‘coming out' party for Bowser as the former Temple standout harassed the Owls offense all over the field with 7 tackles (including 2.5 for loss), 4 QB hurries, 2 sacks and an interception off of a zone blitz in which he was in coverage. He did a nice job overall of not only pressuring the QB but using his speed as he ‘only' weighs 225 pounds which is thin for a defensive end. Starting strong side defensive end Eric Braswell left the game during Rice's first series with what appeared to be an arm or shoulder injury, with Harris and Cameron Malveaux doing a nice job especially against the run. With starting rush end Eric Eiland already out, the depth along the defensive front has been a nice surprise early in the 2013 season. Harris, the JC transfer, is 4th on the team with 19 total tackles (first amongst his defensive line brothering) and is second with 3 tackles for loss. Jeremiah Farley and B.J. Singleton have helped add to the depth along the defensive interior with Singleton adding a blocked extra point after Rice's first score.
In holding opponents to only 126 rushing yards on average (41st nationally), the linebacker core of Derrick Mathews in the middle, Efram Oliphant, George Bamfo and Steven Taylor are more than doing their part in run support as Taylor replaced Bamfo at the Sam, or strong side, starting spot and had a team leading 11 tackles, a tipped pass and one sack against the Owls. Mathews had his typically solid game with 8 tackles, including 1 for loss, and 2 QB hurries in his usually aggressive role in disrupting the opponents' backfield. Mathews leads the team on the season with 30 tackles with Oliphant fourth on the team (and second amongst his linebacker teammates) with 18. In Oliphant, Gibbs has found his niche as the 6'1, 230 pound junior has used his speed and aggressiveness in shooting the gaps as he leads the team with four tackles for loss (including 2 against Rice). Taylor is right behind Oliphant with 16 tackles while also using his 210 pounds more than effectively in coverage as he has three pass breakups in three games. Bamfo recorded 12 tackles through 2 games but had zero against Rice. One aspect the Cougars linebackers must improve in is in coverage of opposing tight ends and/or running backs as Rice's Turner Peterson had 102 yards receiving on 5 catches, including a 57 yard score off of a wheel route in which Mathews lost in one on one coverage on Rice's first possession of the game.
Both starting safeties, Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald, were ball hawks against Rice as the trend continues for the season in the Cougars back end. For the game McDonald recorded 10 tackles and contributed both a pass breakup and a fumble recovery while Steward added 7 total tackles against the Owls. For the season, Stewart is second on the team with 20 tackles and has also contributed 2 fumble recoveries. The ever improving McDonald also has 20 tackles with 2 pass breakups and passes defended as well. The former Oklahoma high school QB has also showed his instincts for the ball with one returned interception for 40 yards along with recovering a fumble for the season. While not particularly great in coverage, the Cougars starting cornerback duo of Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have added solid support in the run game as signified by McMillian's 18 total tackles and Bates' leading the team with 2 forced fumbles. Safety Earl Foster contributed 3 tackles in reserve with Jarrett Irving also playing in reserve behind McDonald. William Jackson, Brandon Wilson and Turon Walker have contributed little in reserve at corner but also have not been asked to do a lot either through the early part of the season.
The Cougars have allowed 252 passing yards on average through 3 games (including 289 by a run first Rice team) in part based on philosophy and part by game situation, as all three opponents have been down late to the Cougars and have been forced to pass. In the corners playing so far off their receivers, Gibbs is almost inviting opposing QBs to play easy pitch and catch with their receivers, such as McHargue to Jordan Taylor to the tune of 6 catches for 58 yards, which is actually pretty good considering the 6'5, 210 pound junior presents an awful mismatch against just about every opponent.
Richie Leone had a subpar game but even Superman is allowed to have an off day, as the senior punter/place kicker averaged only 36 yards on 7 punts, though he did place two inside the Rice 20 yard line. For the season Leone has placed 6 of his 13 punts inside the 20 and forced 7 fair catches while averaging 40 yards per punt. Opponents have returned 3 punts for negative seven yards on the season. Leone also had one kickoff go out of bounds giving Rice the ball at their 40. True freshman Ty Cummings also kicked a ball to the five with the kickoff coverage team allowing Mario Hull to return it to the 26. For the season the return teams have allowed opponents 12 kickoffs to be returned for a 17 yard average. Damian Payne finally broke out of his punt return funk with one return of 32 yards after breaking free of a couple of Rice defenders to help set up the last Cougars TD. For the season Payne is averaging 6.7 yards on 6 returns. Of course take away the 32 yarder and you get 8 yards on 5 returns. Demarcus Ayers brought back one kickoff return for 22 yards and is averaging 24 yards per return on 6 total for the season. Singleton's blocking Rice's first PAT also contributed in the win. The not so special aspect of Saturday's special teams was Leone's blocked 40 yard field goal attempt which was returned for a TD to bring Rice to within one score late in the game. His trajectory looked a tad low considering it wasn't from 50 plus yards out. Leone has connected on 8 of 10 field goals overall on the season however. Also on the ensuing onside kick (after the block), hands team member Deontay Greenberry self admittedly froze on the spot allowing Rice to recover.
In all, a 3-0 start is nothing to scoff at but several areas need to be cleaned up if the Cougars look to contend for the AAC conference championship and a great bowl game. Offensively, while the balance is nice, the redzone problems need to be fixed. Hopefully getting back Kenneth Farrow will help fix some of those issues. The two freshman QBs must also become more consistent if this offense looks to hit its stride as we enter the middle of the season, but that should come with experience. If I were head coach Tony Levine, I would move Piland to third string, if he's even healthy enough to play at all the rest of the season considering his history with concussions.
Defensively, one stat that jumps out of the page is that the Cougars are third nationally in turnover margin with a plus two; nine turnovers forced while only giving up three through three games. Off of those forced turnovers, the Cougars offense has scored 27 total points (3 TDs and 2 FGs). Of the three total turnovers on offense, the defense has allowed opposing offenses to score ZERO points, which is fantastic. In Levine's ‘one game at a time' mantra, the team seems to be improving game to game as they head into a tough matchup in San Antonio next Saturday at UTSA.