While struggling offensively against a stout Memphis defense, it was Houston's defense which saved the day, holding Memphis to five field goals (three of which came after Memphis crossed the Cougars 20-yard line), and forcing four turnovers in which the offense converted into 10 points, which was Saturday's final margin . As I pointed out in my game preview piece earlier this week, these were the keys to the game as the Cougars offense has now converted 9 of its opponents 18 turnovers into 51 total points (6 touchdowns, 3 field goals) while opponents have scored touchdowns on only 9 of 16 trips into the Cougars redzone, good for 50th in the nation. The Coogs are still FIRST nationally in turnover margin with a plus-4 (18 turnovers forced to only 4 surrendered) for a plus 2.80 total margin. The defense has now forced at least two turnovers in 13 consecutive games.
Turnover Tuesdays in the Tre
Mike (or middle) linebacker Derrick Mathews mentioned during the post-game media press conference about how the staff emphasizes forcing turnovers, especially during Tuesday practices, "We call it ‘Turnover Tuesdays in the Tre.' Tuesday is the day we emphasize turnovers at practice and I think that's where that comes from. It's always a competition in anything, but as far as turnovers, yes, we like to compete to see who gets the most in practice or just period. Competing in practice prepares us for forcing turnovers in the game," the defensive team leader said via uhcougars.com. Much of the credit should go to defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who probably realized early in the off-season (after reviewing video of last year's defense) that they would probably not stop too many opponents from gaining yards this season, so instead he has the defense focusing on gang tackling and stripping the ball. This was apparent late in the game after a Memphis wide receiver went high over cornerback Thomas Bates to reel in a catch, only to have the senior corner strip the ball, knocking it loose before he came down in bounds. Both Bates and fellow starting corner Zach McMillian won't win many ‘jump-ball' contests with their lack of size so Gibbs has done a nice job in mixing up a combination of man-to-man and matchup zone with ball hawking safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald always near the ball. The former forced yet another fumble Saturday (adding 28 total tackles, 4 passes defended and 3 fumble recoveries on the season) with the latter almost intercepting two passes against the Tigers. McDonald is third on the team with 33 total tackles (19 solo) while also adding 3 passes defended 1 interception and fumble recovery.
It was Mathews though who set the tone early Saturday for the ‘Third Ward D,' not only jarring the ball loose from Memphis running back Marquis Warford but recovering it as well, giving the offense the ball at their own 44 yard line. Five plays later the offense would punch the ball across the goal line giving the Coogs a 7-0 lead. Mathews recovered another fumble three Memphis possessions later while also adding ten total tackles on the day for his efforts. The surprise of the defense this season may be Will (weak side) linebacker Efram Oliphant, who looks to be taking the place of Phillip Steward, who's currently on the roster of the St. Louis Rams, as yet another play-maker on defense. The junior is second only to Mathews in total tackles (49 to 42) and solo tackles (30 and 23) adding 13 Saturday, while also forcing a fumble as he beautifully placed his helmet right through the ball of a Memphis player which was recovered by Sam (strong side) linebacker Steven Taylor, whom also had 6 tackles for the game. Taylor has also been a nice surprise on the season as the redshirt freshman is fourth on the defense with 29 total tackles and has been exceptional in pass coverage as he leads the team with 5 passes defended.
Early during Saturday's game the Tigers were gashing the Cougars front four, especially on the draw play, as they ran the ball for 104 of their total 200 yards but only gained 23 on the ground in the second half (349 total) as the defensive line adjusted nicely after half time. In the first half it was apparent that Memphis was using Houston's aggressiveness defensively against them as the Coogs front four were undisciplined fundamentals wise, in rushing wide of their pass lanes, often leaving huge holes for Memphis running backs to exploit. Also during the second half the linebackers did not over-pursue the ball as often, avoiding losing contain on the backside. The front four of ends Eric Eiland, Trevor Harris, (with Tyus Bowser and Cameron Malveaux in reserve) with defensive tackles Joey Mbu and Tomme Mark (with B.J. Singleton and Jeremiah Farley off the pine) did a nice job in the second half applying pressure to Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (who completed 21 of 41 passes for 222 yards with zero TDs). Bowser and Harris added their third and second sacks of the season respectively. While the defense may not be getting the results they want in terms of pressures (105th nationally with only 7 sacks and 119th with 23 tackles-for-loss), they're only allowing their first four opponents to rush for 126 yards (26th) and pass for 269 (104th) giving up a total (average wise) of 395 yards (61st). Most importantly, however, the defense is surrendering an impressive 19 points per game which is 22nd nationally. Even more impressively, only 33 of their total 95 points allowed is after half time.
With the defense doing its part, the offense struggled for most of Saturday afternoon, despite the return of running back Kenneth Farrow who only had 33 yards on 15 rushes, as the Cougars struggled establishing the run for the first time this season. Entering play Saturday they averaged 226 yards rushing per game, but Memphis' stout defensive line dominated the Cougars up front for the most part allowing a Cougars season rushing low of 38 total yards (with Ryan Jackson adding only 7 yards on 7 carries). Of course Memphis probably had a little something to do with the inability to establish a power run game as they entered play Saturday only allowing opponents to rush for 104 yards which was 16th nationally. For the record the Tigers are now 12th allowing only 91 yards per game on the ground while the Cougars drop from 20th to 49th with 188 yards rushing offensively. The return of Farrow did help in one important area, red zone conversions. Behind Farrow's two rushing scores (from the 1 and 6 yard lines), the Coogs converted three of their four redzone opportunities into TDs, instead of FGs which had been a major problem the past few weeks without their between-the-tackles power back.
The Cougars offensive line consisting of DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson (from left to right tackle) were not able to establish a good enough push up front for either the run or the passing game as they accumulated a season low 247 total yards (209 passing). One reason for this might be a very peculiar lineup change by offensive coordinator Doug Meacham as he switched Sims and Harper after starting Harper at LT and Sims at LG for the past three games. Sims was inserted into the lineup after starting left tackle Ralph Oragwu tore an ACL during the first game of the season versus Southern. It's not like Harper doesn't have experience as he started all 12 games last season at the LT spot after starting all 14 games at RT during the 2011 season. Saturday was definitely not Sims best game as he committed a holding penalty which wiped out a Farrow 12-yard TD run which would have given the Cougars a 14-6 lead late in the second half and some breathing room, instead of setting for a field goal and only a 10-6 advantage. Sims just looks like he has ‘slow feet' that don't allow him to get wide in defending opposing rush ends, something the much more athletic Harper possesses. Sims and his 320 pounds would be better suited inside at guard as opposed to the 295 pound Harper, in my opinion.
Meacham had more than a questionable game play-calling wise as well, with too many "gadget plays" including a flea-flicker, a double-pass, a ‘fumblerooski' and using Farrow in a ‘Wildcat' type package which wasn't really needed as he already has the perfect type of ‘Wildcat' QB in Greg Ward (who was hardly used Saturday in another puzzling coaching decision). In all, none of the above "trick plays" gained the type of positive yardage they should have. Along with Meacham's willingness to stick with what had been working the entire season and the offenses inability to establish a running game, QB John O'Korn was put in tough down and distances for most of the day and the results showed it as the true freshman connected on only 13 of his 30 passes for 198 yards. His first possession included a 17-yard scoring strike to Daniel Spencer on a seam-route down the middle gives which gives him a very impressive 11 TDs on the season to only ONE interception. O'Korn and the Coogs offense was never able to establish a rhythm for most of the day as the Tigers executed part of their game plan in holding onto the ball (almost 36 minutes of possession time), giving the Cougars offense fewer opportunities than perhaps they wanted. This is not a new problem however as the Coogs have scored in less than two minutes on 14 of their 32 scoring opportunities on the season thus far. Saturday's problem occurred with the offenses struggles in running the ball, along with his receivers' inability to again hang onto the ball which placed O'Korn in long third down conversion situations where the Memphis defensive line could tee off on him. O'Korn went 3 for 4 for 60 yards with the TD pass on the Coogs first possession, but only 3 for 12 for a meager 18 yards on drives 2 for 8 before finishing 7 for 14 for 120 yards on their final 6 drives.
For the season O'Korn is now just under 60-percent in completion percentage while passing for 226 yards per game, though the Coogs are still 26th nationally in averaging 287 yards per game through the air. It's still a joy watching O'Korn progress however as he can still create positive plays even when chaos ensues around him (unlike a certain pro QB residing in Houston whom shall go nameless). One example of this ability to create something from nothing occurred on a particular play when it looked as if O'Korn were going to be sacked (as he was wrapped up by Memphis star defensive end Martin Ifedi), almost spinning out of the sack only to underhand the ball to a standing nearby Farrow, who ran 11 yards for a two-point conversion that gave the Coogs a lead they would never relinquish, making the score 18-15 late in the third quarter. O'Korn is 34th nationally in QB passing efficiency rating with a 148.5. More importantly is that he's only one of two true freshman on the list, with the other being Florida State's Jameis Winston who's second with a 213.9 score. Ward completed his only pass of the game for 11 yards but was ineffective rushing as he carried the rock only 3 times for a minus 7 yards as the Tigers were not about to let the dynamic true freshman beat them with his legs. I would have liked to seen Ward contribute more as he didn't even receive a full series on Saturday, despite O'Korn's struggles.
In continuing the theme of the offensive struggles, the receivers still need to continue improving on holding onto the ball as the unit added several more drops, including at least two by Markeith Ambles (4 catches for only 19 yards) who would have had a fumble if not for a Memphis penalty. Fellow outside receiver Larry McDuffy also continues to struggle as he added only 3 catches for 20 yards along with a drop himself. Fellow starting outside receiver Xavier Maxwell continues to improve (not coincidentally as Ambles made his debut a few weeks ago), adding an impressive 33 yard reception on an O'Korn roll-out that setup Farrow's TD that gave the Cougars the lead. With Spencer's only catch coming on the aforementioned TD during their first possession, it was once again Deontay Greenberry leading the way as he added 4 receptions for 76 yards. He caught a beautifully thrown quick slant over the middle for 29 yards on the first play of that first possession. Unfortunately the quick slant wasn't there for much of the day as the play is mainly effective after the linebackers or safeties are sucked up into the box off of play-action. With a limited rushing game the Tigers defenders rarely bit off of play-action. For the season the sensational sophomore has 606 yards on 39 receptions placing him eighth in the nation in yards per game (121.2) and seventh in receptions per game (7.8), average wise.
On special teams play, Richie Leone had yet another fantastic day "flipping the field" as the senior pinned the Memphis offense inside their 20-yard line on 4 of his 6 punts while averaging 47 yards per. Thanks to Leone and the kickoff and punt coverage units, Memphis started their offense at their own 23 yard line on average. The Cougars on the other hand started at their own 41, due in large part to Demarcus Ayers and his 144 return yards on 5 kickoffs, including an impressive 45 yarder to begin the second half. Ayers is averaging 24.8 return yards on his 13 kickoff returns on the season, very impressive for a true freshman. Punt returns have not been as effective though as Damian Payne, while at least being able to handle them, is still "dancing" too much for my tastes instead of accelerating up the field as soon as he catches a punt. For this reason he's only averaging 5.7 yards on 9 total returns, mainly aided by a 31 yarder earlier this season.
In all, while everyone involved with the program should be ecstatic with the 5-0 start, a lot needs to improve in all three phases of the game if this team hopes to go where it wants (a conference championship and a shot at the Orange Bowl). The young skill position players on both sides of the ball are improving week-to-week as are O'Korn and Ward. If the Cougars hope to defeat the BYU Cougars next Saturday at Reliant (game time is set for 2:30pm CST on ESPNews), the team must cut down on mistakes such as penalties which have wiped out a potential score each game this season. I think head coach Tony Levine summed up the season perfectly after the game when he said, "I'm proud of our team, we played five games, the big picture, we're five and zero. We could not have a better record, obviously, but at this point could we have played better? Absolutely. I heard a wise coach once say more games are lost than won. I am a believer in that. We try not to lose games, but it doesn't mean we're going to play conservative."