Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham had a great game plan going into the Rutgers game and his unit executed it as well as could have imagined. In my game preview I had stressed the importance of coming out and throwing early to set up the run, as Rutgers had entered the game allowing only 84 yards rushing per game which was second nationally only behind Michigan State. So what does Meacham having the Cougars come out doing? Running naturally (and this is why I'm an ‘armchair QB' and Meacham's an OC of a Division 1 football program). The Cougars ran the ball 38 times for 211 yards (including taking out 40 yards in tackles-for-loss/sacks) with only 26 of those yards (on 8 carries) coming in the fourth quarter as the Coogs were trying to run out the clock. Greg Ward Jr. led the offense on two touchdown drives when the game was still in doubt behind beautiful play-calling on Meacham's part. Ward ran for 91 yards on 11 carries behind an assorted combination of QB draws, keepers (where he didn't see anything he liked downfield, pulled the ball down and ran instinctively for major yardage), keepers off of zone-read options and bootleg rollouts, w/ the latter finishing off a nice 7-play, 80 yard drive calling his own number 5 times for 47 yards with a bootleg as he carried the ball in on the left side from 2-yards out nearing the end of the third to make the score 42-14. The QB run game can only be effective however, if the defense has to honor the inside rush game, which was definitely the case Saturday behind Kenneth Farrow and his 74 yards on only 6 carries. The bruising 216 pounder took his fourth carry of the game to the house for a 40-yard TD run off of an inside hand off from Ward (who had 37 yards on 3 previous carries on the drive), giving the Coogs a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter on their fifth possession (and Ward's first) of the game. Ryan Jackson contributed 28 yards on 5 carries with most coming on what should have been a scoring drive on the offenses first possession but was thwarted due to penalties (which we'll get into later). Jackson took a nasty hit near halftime and didn't return, but by then the damage had already been done to Rutgers front seven. Reserve backs Kent Brooks and Justin Hicks combined for 30 yards on 7 carries in the second half. Meacham also used slot receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer in the running game in lateral passes (that served as extended handoffs) and end-arounds to keep the Rutgers back-seven honest as the two combined for 24 yards on 5 carries.
The Coogs offensive line of DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson (from left to right tackle) started out slowly in pass blocking as they could not handle the Rutgers pressure from a basic four man front, but were more than effective in run blocking as they cleared the way for 46 rushing yards on 7 carries including 5 yard run by Farrow up the middle from the Rutgers 14-yard line on 4th-and-1. Unfortunately the gutsy play call was negated by a holding penalty on Redman. Ty Cloud (guard), Alex Cooper (tackle), Austin Lunsford (C) and Emeka Okafor (guard) played nice in reserve on the line in the second half.
With an effective run game established, QB John O'Korn played his best game of the season as he connected on 24 of his 30 passes for 364 yards with 5 TDs and ZERO interceptions as he was in total control of the offense from the very first snap. With the masterful performance in Piscataway, he rose to 16th on the NCAA QB pass efficiency rankings as he now holds a 159 rating. He, along with Florida State's Jameis Winston are the only two true freshmen in the top-50. O'Korn hit his receivers in stride so they could accumulate YAC yardage (yards after the catch) and was accurate on the run and with his deep throws downfield. He was roughed up a bit with 4 first half sacks but the true freshman hardly let that affect him as he kept his eyes downfield the entire game. Ward also connected on 4 of his 5 passes for 36 yards and has now hit on 12 of his 14 total passes this season for 196 yards as an effective change-up from O'Korn.
Greenberry once again led the receiving core with 8 receptions for 168 yards, catching a few quick slants down the seam, including one ‘pitch-and-catch' that resulted in an 83 TD reception for the true sophomore. Two of his three TD receptions on the game came off of back-shoulder fades from O'Korn thrown to where only Greenberry could catch them. On the first one, Greenberry rose above the Rutgers true freshman corner, snatching the ball from the 5-foot-11 inch defender showing off the kind of hands that future NFL first round draft picks are created from. On the season Greenberry is now averaging 120 yards per game, good for 6th nationally, not to be outdone by his 8 receptions per game which ranks him 7th. Spencer reeled in 6 balls for 117 yards with many coming off short quick throws where the slot receiver made the initial defender miss the tackle before taking off for major yards down the field. Aaron Johnson and Demarcus Ayers, subbing for starter Larry McDuffey (out with a concussion) at one of the outside receiver spots, combined for 54 yards on 7 receptions, both grabbing the first TD receptions of their careers. Ayers (32 yards on 3 catches) scored on a 26-yard post with Johnson (22 yards on 4 receptions) adding a 2-yarder in the back of the endzone on the teams' first possession of the third. Wayne Beadle caught his first passes of the season early when the game was still in doubt as he added 2 catches for 14 yards from his reserve slot position. Andrew Rodriquez also made a fantastic catch over the middle on a slant rout for 17 yards. Both Farrow and Jackson combined for 25 yards on 3 catches out of the backfield. Meacham had his receivers running shallow crossing patterns early due to the zone coverage the Rutgers defense was employing early on. With the shallow crossers and the running game executing early on, the slants and posts down the field opened up later in the game.
Rutgers offense had 420 yards on 72 plays including 204 rushing yards, but with only 64 of those yards in the second half coming on the ground, the Cougars defense proved it could once again make second half adjustments under first year coordinator David Gibbs. On their two scoring drives of the first half, the Scarlet Knights rushed 12 times for 91 yards as they used player shifts to overload the left side of their offensive line, basically outnumbering the Coogs defensive front. Behind this numbers advantage it was easier for Rutgers to overpower Houston's front seven at the point of attack with the use of toss sweeps and pulling offensive linemen as well. Rutgers also made good use of its fullback to clear the way for their running backs as he took on and occupied Houston linebackers a good bit in the first half. Gibbs had his defense adjust as the game wore on by shading his defensive line to the side of the Rutgers overloads right before the snap. Then it was simply a case of the Coogs linebackers attacking and shooting the gaps, which they did plenty Saturday afternoon. The score also dictated that Rutgers change its offensive game plan as once they fell behind by more than a few TDs they were forced to abandon the run for a passing game that just wasn't working. The Cougars secondary forced 6 turnovers (5 interceptions with 1 fumble recovery) as Rutgers finished the game passing for 216 yards connecting on 18 of 31 passes. The Cougars continue to lead the nation in turnover margin with a plus 2.86 (27 turnovers gained to only 7 lost).
The defensive line of Eric Braswell, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Trevor Harris (with Cameron Malveaux, B.J. Singleton, Jeremiah Farley and Tyus Bowser in reserve) played well enough after their initial adjustment to allow the linebackers to shoot the gaps to clean up as the line had a quiet game stats wise, led by Malveaux's 4 tackles. While weakside linebacker Efram Oliphant had led the team in tackles over the past three games, Saturday was Steven Taylor's turn from his strongside spot as he led the defense with 10 tackles (7 solo) and from my eyes what should have been a forced fumble as it looked to me as he stripped the ball from a Rutgers running back in the second quarter, which led to the O'Korn to Ayers TD toss two plays later, resulting in a 28-14 lead in which they would never look back from. While Oliphant had "only" 7 tackles he did add 2 tackles-for-loss and leads the team with 8 for the season. Mathews had an unusually quiet game with only 6 tackles himself but most coming in the first half as the junior was usually first in on tackling the Rutgers backs for minimum gains on many delayed run blitzes.
As far as the secondary is concerned, it appears as a ‘changing of the guard' has taken place amongst the corner back position. William Jackson started in place of Thomas Bates on Saturday from his usual nickel back spot and added a pass break up. Though he was in on only one tackle he seemed to be in on many more as he was always around when the ball carrier was being brought down from his position in run support. Bates saw game action but was not credited with a tackle for the game. At the other corner, JC transfer Turon Walker contributed mightily with 2 interceptions and added 6 tackles. Zach McMillian started and added two pass breakups. Free safety Trevon Stewart was his usual ball hawking self as the true sophomore amassed 10 tackles, 1 interception, forced and recovered fumble as Gibbs had him playing close to the line of scrimmage for most of the game against Rutgers physical run game as the eighth man in the box. Adrian McDonald intercepted Rutgers QBs twice Saturday afternoon and should have had a third (as his first interception was ruled an incomplete pass despite what appeared to be the strong safeties hands being underneath the ball before it hit the ground) during Rutgers first possession of the game. Walker intercepted the next pass as a bit of justice was served. For his efforts, McDonald leads the defense with 3 interceptions for the season in his role as the ‘roamer' from his high safety spot when Gibbs has the defense in ‘Cover-1' zone schemes.
Punter Richie Leone had another fantastic day on kickoffs and punts as he had 8 touchbacks on 8 kickoffs, booming the ball into the endzone not allowing Rutgers dangerous kickoff return man, Janarion Grant to return even one. For the season Leone has 26 touchbacks on 49 total kickoffs. Due to the Coogs offensive exploits, the senior from Roswell, Ga. only punted three times (for a 39.7 yard average), pinning Rutgers offense inside their own 20-yard line once. For the season he's pinned opponents 18 times on 33 total punts, one of the main reasons why the Coogs lead the nation as their punt coverage team has allowed negative five yards on 8 total punts (including one for 8 yards by Grant). As good as Leone is on kickoffs and punts, the opposite unfortunately holds true on field goals, beyond 40 yards out at least. Leone had a 41-yarder blocked on the Coogs first possession and for the season has connected on only one of his five attempts when the ball is placed on the 30-yard line (remember that ten yards is added to each field goal attempt as the goal posts are placed in the back of the endzone). The further back a field goal attempt takes place the lower the trajectory is needed and apparently Leone is kicking too low as that was his second block of the season. Returns wise, Ayers had a difficult day with two kick returns for 28 yards, one of which could have been kneeled down on for a touchback but the true freshman apparently thought the ball needed to be returned even though he muffed it from the endzone. The subsequent return was for only 11 yards. Damian Payne didn't return a punt on the day but as long as he fair catches them it's considered a win by special teams coordinator Jamie Christian.
In all, both Meacham and Gibbs had great game plans and their respective units executed them to a tee. Meacham's play calling, particularly in the redzone, was much better on Saturday than it had been in previous games. Of course when your players make plays the coaching will always look better. For the game the Coogs scored TDs on 4 of 6 trips inside the 20, while holding Rutgers to only 2 on their 4 (with the two misses being interceptions). The major negative about the game, and for the season, continues to be the penalties committed by all three sides of the ball. With 11 penalties for 100 yards, the team is now dead LAST nationally (out of 125 teams mind you) as they average 9 penalties for 82 yards per game. This is something that MUST be cleaned up before tough games at UCF and Louisville in a few weeks. Reserve wide receiver Markeith Ambles might have also seen his last playing time of the season as he dropped the only pass he was targeted for.
Cougars head coach Tony Levine on his teams efforts on Saturday and their motivation, via uhcougars.com, "We kind of heard a little all week of reasons why we should not have won this football game. I think it brought a little bit of fuel to the fire in terms of the heartbreaking loss we suffered last week, getting on a plane and flying three and a half hours, Rutgers coming off the bye week and it being Homecoming and it being a sellout. Our kids are young and they thrive on that. I'm proud of them. It was a hostile environment and an outstanding football team, an established program that Rutgers certainly has."
They say the true test of character is revealed when adversity hits. I, along with many others, wondered all week how this young team would respond to that heart breaking one point loss to BYU the previous week. Would the team let that loss affect them to the point where it became a two game losing streak, or would they come out fighting? I'm pretty sure Saturday's efforts answered that question. The new question for this week will be how will the team handle success? Will the they come to work this week during practice, or revel in the victory at Rutgers leading to a lethargic effort against a South Florida team with a losing record (2-5, 2-1 in AAC action) before a national audience on ESPN this Thursday at Reliant Stadium?