The Coogs are now first nationally in turnover margin with a plus 2.8 as they have forced their opponents into 14 total turnovers while committing only 3 on the offensive end. They have been masterful in converting turnovers into points on the offensive end in all four games this season as they continued the trend Saturday in turning two of the turnovers into 14 points and for the season have turned 7 of the defenses 14 forced turnovers into 41 total points (5 touchdowns and 2 field goals). The defense also added its first defensive score of the season as nickel back William Jackson jumped a route late in the game, racing 96 yards for the "pick-6" for the final score of the game. This aggressive nature, fostered by first year defensive coordinator David Gibbs most definitely helps a young offense led by two true freshman quarterbacks which has placed them in great field position on several occasions this young season. This is a major difference from last season in which the offense generally had to drive almost the length of the field too often in order to score. During defensive drills each practice, the first year DC emphasizes standing up offensive players via gang tackling with one defender aimed at forcing a fumble by stripping the ball away.
Momentum swung against the Road Runners on two key plays by reserve defensive linemen B.J. Singleton. After blocking an extra point attempt last week against Rice, the 6-foot-3, 285 pound redshirt freshman shot the gap to block a 29 yard UTSA field goal attempt which bounced perfectly to Brandon Wilson as the young defensive back sped 78 yards for the score pushing the Cougars lead to 31-21 late in the third quarter. After both teams scored late in the third/early in the fourth quarters (with the Coogs leading 38-28), Singleton was back at it again intercepting an Eric Soza pass after reading the QBs eyes as he dropped back on a zone blitz undercuting a route giving the ball to the offense at the RoadRunner 29. Singleton is the third defensive linemen to intercept a pass this season (with end Tyus Bowser and tackle Tomme Mark being the other two). Unfortunately the offense couldn't convert such great field position into points but that would not be the case on UTSA's next offensive possession as free safety Trevon Stewart picked off Soza on an underthrown deep sideline route as he was in man coverage against speedster Kenny Bias giving the offense the ball at UTSA's 47 yard line. Seven plays and nearly two minutes later the offense would score giving the Coogs an insurmountable 45-28 lead. Not to be outdone on the next RoadRunner possession, Jackson forced a fumble as he knocked the ball out of tight end Jeremiah Moeller's hands with weakside linebacker Efrem Oliphant recovering at UTSA's 40 yard line. While the offense was again unable to convert the turnover into points they were able to pin the RoadRunners deep in their own territory as on their next possession cornerback Zach McMillian again intercepted Soza giving the offense the ball at UTSA's 15 yard line. One play later the Coogs would score upping the lead to 52-28 with the next possession resulting in Jackson's already mentioned pick-6 to close out the scoring.
While the defense dominating the second half, and fourth quarter in particular, the game did not start out that way as UTSAs offense came out ‘dinking and dunking' their way to a 7-0 lead taking nearly seven minutes off the clock on a 12 play 82 yard drive on their first possession of the game in which the secondary had numerous communication breakdowns in passing receivers off from one man to the next in Gibbs zone schemes. UTSA's predicted pre-snap shifts and motions also confused the Cougars defense as a whole as the RoadRunners were able to dictate one-on-one matchups in which they were able to take advantage. UTSA's offense wasn't particularly effective on the inside running game (gaining maybe three yards per play), but they didn't have to be as their perimeter rushing game, and easy tosses to the flat as the Cougar defensive backs were giving plenty of cushion, were gaining nearly five yards a pop giving them manageable third downs in which they could either run or pass from. The Cougars defense was also unable to pressure Soza (zero sacks and only one tackle-for-loss) as many of his throws came on roll outs designed to get him out of the pocket where he did his best work. A week after dominating Rice, Bowser only had 2 tackles, 2 pressures and zero sacks after being taken out of the game via UTSA double teams. None of the other Cougar ends (Trevor Harris or the returning Eric Eiland) were able to mount any pressure either. The most pressure the defensive line seemed to press on Soza came from the inside from tackles Singleton, starter Joey Mbu and reserve Jeremiah Farley. In all, the Cougars defense didn't play particularly bad in the first half, allowing 232 of 242 of UTSA's total yards on three (of their six first half) drives which covered 28 of their 38 total first half plays which took nearly 15 minutes of their 19 minutes in which they possessed the ball.
For the game UTSA managed 493 yards with only 130 coming on the ground. On the season the defense is allowing their four opponents to rush for only 126.5 yards per game (36th nationally). If they can keep up this pace this will be the Coogs best run defense since the 2007 season in which they gave up nearly 140 yards per game on the ground. Even during the magical 2011 season they gave up 170 yards on the ground. Individual efforts that stood out Saturday afternoon include; Oliphant who had a team leading 11 tackles (including that fumble recovery), corner back Thomas Bates 9 tackles including a nice pass breakup on a deep pass (though he was picked on often for his off the ball coverage), starting mike (middle) linebacker Derrick Mathews had his normal all around stellar performance with 9 tackles, fellow strong side linebacker Steven Taylor also contributed 7 tackles in his second start and strong safety Adrian McDonald also added 7 tackles (including one for loss). The aforementioned Jackson had a nice overall game as well with six total tackles as the Cougars cornerbacks were left often in man coverage down field as the safeties often crept up in run support due to UTSAs east/west run game. As soon as the safeties started showing in run support, Soza would hit his receivers over the middle as he completed 29 of 40 passes for 316 yards (with the two interceptions in the fourth quarter leading to his teams undoing).
UTSA's ball control offense often forces their opponent's offenses to maximize each of their own offensive touches due to their limited possessions each game, and this was definitely the case on Saturday afternoon. The Cougars produced three scoring drives on their five first half possessions in which they totaled 246 total yards of offense with only 79 coming on the ground. After averaging more than 250 yards rushing through their first three games, UTSA did an effective job in limiting starting tailback Ryan Jackson as he gained only 68 yards on 18 carries, or 3.8 yards per rush. He entered play Saturday averaging more than six yards per rush. With the physical Kenneth Farrow still out (due to an ankle sprain) the offense still had no effective partner for the diminutive Jackson as walk-on Justin Hicks added only three carries (though for 27 yards including an impressive 15 yard TD late in the fourth). Hopefully Farrow returns for conference play as a between-the-tacklers rusher will be needed for the more physical defenses of the AAC. Kent Brooks (2 rushes for 9 yards) though physically stout (5'11, 206) just doesn't seem to have the instincts to hit the hole quick enough to be an effective enough option to spell Jackson.
While the running game may have sputtered, make no mistake this game offensively belonged to QB John O'Korn. The true freshman completed 24 of his 36 passes for 312 yards and 4 TDs with ZERO interceptions. For the season he's completed 73 of his 115 passes for an impressive 63.5 completion percentage with 10 TDs to only 1 interception. He may be only averaging 233 yards passing per game but that's due to his sharing duties with David Piland early on. While he'll still share playing time with Greg Ward, look for that passing yard per game average stat to slowly creep up to the 307 yards the offense is averaging as a whole. What's impressed me the most about O'Korn so early in his career has to be his toughness, which unfortunately has been tested due to the many shots he's taken from opposing defenders through his first four games. He's been knocked out with hard shots in each of the past two games but has come back to create plays for his receivers by keeping his eyes down field while breaking contain. This vision down field has allowed for several huge plays downfield, mainly to sophomore sensation Deontay Greenberry. What's more, the leadership that O'Korn has shown is beyond what's to be expected from a true freshman. One play that exhibits this quality is when after Markeith Ambles dropped what could have been a 54 yard TD reception to end the third quarter (when the game was still close), O'Korn shortly thereafter could be seen patting Ambles on the head as if to say ‘keep your head up big guy, we're going to need you later on.' This toughness, vision and leadership added to his physical skill set O'Korn already possesses at such a young age could lead to a beautiful next few years along Cullen Blvd as the next ‘golden child' may have surfaced.
Of course O'Korn only has to show his toughness because the offensive line is allowing too many unnecessary hits to the young QB, which will wear him down as the season gets longer. Left tackle Rowdy Harper started and played against UTSA but was noticeably limping after injuring a knee last week against Rice. The off-week this week couldn't have come at a better time for him and left guard Ty Cloud, who's just getting himself back into game shape himself after a summer of leg and head injuries has slowed the senior. Penalties continue to hold the line back with starting right tackle Zach Johnson adding two holding calls (one which wiped out a first down rush by Ward). Overall however the line (with Kevin Forsch at right guard and Bryce Redman at center) has been effective overall as the Coogs are 13th nationally in scoring offense at 43.5 points per game, 25th in rushing at 226.5, 19th in passing (307.5) and 9th in total offense at 534 yards per game.
In the Cougars recent QB of riches depth chart, one should not overlook Ward as offensive coordinator Doug Meacham has done a masterful job in rotating the two true freshman QBs throughout the first four games of the season. Ward's first touch against UTSA came much like it did last week against Rice, with a 6 yard QB keeper off a zone read option play resulting in a TD. Meacham may have found the answer to the offenses meager red zone problems through the first three games of the season in which they scored TDs on only 9 of 19 possessions. The offense on Saturday scored on their first three redzone trips and five of seven total and could have scored on a sixth if not for a drop by receiver Daniel Spencer. Ward has also completed 5 of his 6 passes on the season for 77 yards.
Speaking of the drops by Spencer and Ambles, both had two drops each that could have resulted in an extra 90 yards and two TDs for O'Korn and is a problem that must be rectified in order to keep drives extended against tougher AAC competition. The shining bright spot of course is the continued O'Korn to Greenberry connection as the Fresno, California native is fifth nationally in receiving yards per game (132.5 yards per game or 530 yards through 4 games) and fourth as he's averaged nearly nine receptions per game (35) as well, including 9 catches for 149 yards against UTSA. While many of these receptions have come over the middle on quick slants against slower linebackers or safeties from his position lined up in the slot, he and O'Korn seem to be on the same page as two of his three TDs having come on occasions where he's had to break off his route and improvise on an O'Korn scramble. While Greenberry has become a definite number one option, Spencer is still a reliable number two target (despite the drops) as the junior from Grandview, Texas has 17 receptions on the season for 223 yards (despite only one catch for five yards against UTSA) and is tied with Greenberry with 3 TDs. Ambles added 2 receptions for 38 yards on Saturday and has averaged 34.5 yards on 3 total catches and could be the deep threat that O'Korn needs to stretch defenses stacking the box in order to stop the Cougars running game. Starting outside receivers Larry McDuffey and Xavier Maxwell both had nice games against the RoadRunners as McDuffey had 5 receptions for 34 yards with Maxwell contributing 3 and 42 respectively. Two of Maxwell's catches went for scores from 7 and 22 yards. Aaron Johnson also added 2 receptions for 23 yards. Jackson continues to be an effective threat out of the backfield (as if O'Korn doesn't have enough weapons) as he contributed 4 receptions for 50 yards including a 15 yard reception for a score on the Coogs first possession of the game.
After a below average game special teams wise last week, the unit more than made up for the effort against UTSA with many game changing contributions which had to make head coach, and former special teams coordinator Tony Levine, a very happy man Saturday night. On top of the game changing field goal block by Singleton, linebacker George Bamfo had a vicious hit on RoadRunner kick return ace Kam Jones effectively knocking him out of the game as the Cougars coverage teams continue their dominating play as they lead the nation in allowing a negative 2.33 return average on three total punt returns. A lot of that has to do with punter Richie Leone as he's pinned opposing defenses inside their 20 yard line on 9 of his 16 total punts (in which he's averaged 38.8 yards per attempt). After a below average game kickoff return coverage wise (allowing UTSA to return 8 kicks for 180 yards or a 22.5yard average), they're allowing opponents to return kicks for 19.4 yards on average, which is good for 42nd nationally with Leone only having 11 touchbacks on 28 total kickoffs. Field position played an important part of this game as the Coogs started 8 of their 12 offensive possessions at their 35 yard line due in part to the defense holding UTSA's offense to limited yardage but also the kick return game in which Ambles made a mark as he returned one kickoff for 35 yards with fellow receiver Demarcus Ayers returning 2 for 32 yards. Punt returns continue to be ineffective with both Ambles and Damian Payne returning one each for one yard. Leone also missed another field goal, shanking a 26 yarder early in the fourth quarter but is still 9 of 12 overall this season.
In conclusion, as they say - sometimes it's better to be lucky than good and that expression fits this game as a huge 14 point swing occurred as UTSA was driving for a potential game leading score trailing 24-21 in the middle of the third when the RoadRunners missed a sure TD off a double reverse pass that came up just short as Soza was wide open at the 5 yard line. After an incompletion off a tip by Bowser, Singleton blocked a potential game tying field goal leading to Jackson's scoop and score giving the Coogs some breathing room and a 31-21 lead. On the Cougars next offensive possession a 22 yard scoring reception by Maxwell could have easily been an interception as the ball went right between the hands of a UTSA linebacker with Maxwell catching the pass off the deflection. Of course it's also said that you make your own luck, and in forcing at least two turnovers in 12 consecutive games, the Coogs definitely fall into that category as well. At 4-0 the Cougars head into an off week before hosting Memphis at BBVA Compass Stadium on October 12th in their second AAC game of the season.