The fact that the game was even close at the end was particularly amazing and a testament to their defense as the Coogs produced their worst performance of the season offensively, statistically speaking. Of course this wasn't particularly surprising considering the Cardinals entered the game first nationally, tied with Alabama, in giving up only 10.6 points per game and were second in rushing yards allowed (78 yards per game), passing yards (165.7) and total defense (243.7). The Cards front four dominated the Coogs offensive line at the point of contact, making it just about impossible for offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to get his offense to establish any semblance of a running game as they produced only 96 yards on 26 carries. Add in three Louisville sacks for 22 yards in losses and Houston rushed 29 times for 74 yards for a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. With an inefficient running game, Houston quarterback John O'Korn looked like the true freshman he is, completing only 16 of his 35 passes for 126 yards. In converting only 5 of 15 third down conversions the offense couldn't establish any type of rhythm allowing the Cards to hold onto the ball for 37 minutes of game time behind 155 yards on 38 carries as Louisville's offensive line routinely opened holes for Domonique Brown who produced 137 of those yards on 27 carries, with at least 75-percent of them coming after contact. The Cougars defense sacked Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater three times totaling 21 yards in losses, bringing the Cards rushing total to 134 yards on 41 total carries. The Louisville QB completed 19 of his 29 passes but for only 203 yards with ZERO touchdown tosses, bringing to a halt his consecutive streak of 21 games with at least one TD pass. Unfortunately for the Coogs defense, their consecutive streak of forcing at least two turnovers was also brought to an end at 17 games, which has been a major emphasis this season for defensive coordinator David Gibbs.
The Coogs offensive line, particularly tackles DeAnthony Sims (left) and Zach Johnson (right) were unable to give O'Korn the pass protection he needed as stud Cardinal defensive ends Lorenzo Mauldin and Marcus Smith were able to disrupt the freshman QB off of the edge. When O'Korn was forced to step up into the pocket, defensive tackle Lorenzo Mauldin was there to cause havoc in the Cougars offensive backfield as guards Rowdy Harper (left), Kevin Forsch (right) and center Bryce Redman were unable to give O'Korn a clean pocket. Each of the three mentioned Cardinals had a sack with Mauldin adding three tackles-for-loss. First down was once again a problem for the Cougars as they produced 10 yards on 5 first down first quarter plays. This inept production put the offense behind the chains on second downs leading to too many third and long situations which placed too much pressure on the young QB and allowed the Cards defense to pin its ears back in coming after him. The second quarter was a different story however as they rushed 10 times for 42 yards giving them more manageable second and third downs which the offense was able to convert. It's no surprise that the Cougars scored all 13 of their points during this quarter on three possessions (two field goals and one TD) in which they held onto the ball for more than eight minutes of game time. Unfortunately because Louisville held onto the ball for more than eight minutes of game time themselves in the third quarter, the Cougars offense had only two possessions in which they rushed three times for minus one yards. The fourth quarter was a little better with 7 rushes for 38 yards but lost 18 yards on 2 sacks for a total of 20 yards on 9 carries. Ryan Jackson was the most effective back as he rushed for 46 yards on 13 carries with Kenneth Farrow gaining only 24 yards on his 9 attempts. Unlike the UCF game the previous week, Farrow was unable to crack Louisville's tough defensive interior on inside zone draws as Jackson was able to use his speed and shiftiness to hit the seams along the line before they closed down. After a game in which he rushed for 66 yards on 11 carries (not including sacks), with many coming on called QB draws, O'Korn was only able to rush for 26 yards on 4 carries, with a long of 13 on a keeper late in the fourth, giving him a total of only 4 net yards on 7 total carries when adding in the 3 sacks.
The biggest factor in the Cougars sluggish offense, along with a stout Cardinals defense, was probably the fact that star receiver Deontay Greenberry left the game midway through the first quarter with concussion like symptoms after a nasty hit in which he was sandwiched between two Louisville defenders, never to return to the game. Although Andrew Rodriquez did an admirable job stepping in for the nation's seventh leading receiver entering game action Saturday night (with 70 receptions for 1,042 yards with 9 TDs) as he had 3 catches for 29 yards, including a tough 5 yard reception in which he was drilled in the back immediately upon the reception, the redshirt freshman is no Greenberry and it showed Saturday evening as O'Korn missed having his ‘safety outlet' against a tough Cardinals secondary. Many of the passes for Greenberry that would usually begin as short quick slants down the seam were simply not there as none of the other receivers could duplicate the hands, route running and flat out speed that the prized true sophomore possesses. Fellow slot receiver Daniel Spencer continued his inconsistent play this season with only 23 yards on 2 receptions, though he was playing with a dinged up shoulder suffered last week. Without major contributions from the Coogs two leading receivers, the communication between O'Korn and the rest of the receiver crew was lacking as there were quite a few ‘mix ups' in which O'Korn thought the receiver was going to run a certain route, only to throw the ball to a spot where there was no receiver. Other times receivers broke off their routes in anticipation of passes that were never thrown. Without Greenberry and Spencer, the rest of the normal receiving crew stepped up little, though Markeith Ambles had one nice 28 yard reception. Outside receivers Xavier Maxwell (1 catch for 5 yards) and Demarcus Ayers (1 for 1) caught a combined 2 passes for 6 yards with Aaron Johnson allowing yet two more passes to pass right through his hands. In the surprise of the evening, true freshman QB Greg Ward Jr. experienced a few series at slot receiver, hauling in a 7 yard pass to convert a third down on the scoring drive that would give the Coogs their only lead of the game at 13-10 just before halftime. With the Cards able to pressure O'Korn with only four down linemen, sometimes adding a linebacker, they were often able to drop back six of seven defenders in coverage which negated the screen game along the perimeter to the Coog RBs as Farrow (13 yards on 5 catches) and Jackson (2 for 20) only combined for 33 yards on 7 receptions.
The fact that the Coogs defense was able to keep them in the past two games has been simply amazing, considering how bad the unit has performed over the past few seasons. While the Cards were held below their season averages in points, passing, rushing and total offense, they were able to hold onto the ball for almost 38 minutes of game time, including their four scoring drives (2 TDs and 2 FGs) in which they held the ball for a combined 16-minutes, 54-seconds. Gibbs was able to dial up enough pressure via sacks by linebackers Derrick Mathews (8 tackles including 3 for loss), Efrem Oliphant (13 total tackles) and Steven Taylor and enough run blitzes to throw the Cards offense off kilter just enough to keep them in the game.
The Cougars front four of Eric Braswell, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Eric Eiland with Trevor Harris, Cameron Malveaux, B.J. Singleton, Jeremiah Farley and Tyus Bowser in reserve played Louisville's massive offensive line (which averages nearly 317 pounds per man) to a standstill on 7 of their 11 main drives, not including a Louisville drive that started and ended with a muffed punt and one to end the game in which the lost five yards on three kneel downs. During those 7 drives Louisville produced only 104 total yards on 28 plays including three ‘3 & outs.' Unfortunately though, that's not the way the game's played as the Cards ran 39 plays for 238 yards on those four scoring drives for their 20 total points. On those four drives Brown rushed 19 times for 106 yards for a 5.6 yard per carry average with 2 TDs. The 215 pound bruiser probably gained at least 75 percent of his total 151 yards after initial contact as well as he showed patience in allowing the holes along his line to open up along with quickness in hitting them. While Mbu, Singleton and Farley played well along the interior of the line, the defensive ends failed to maintain leverage too many times allowing Brown to hit the cutback lanes in what has been an all too familiar occurrence for the line this season. While Eiland hasn't contributed much this season, both Harris and Bowser had quiet games with Harris contributing zero tackles while Bowser's only presence on the stat sheet was a nice knock down of a Bridgewater pass on a third down play.
The secondary played admirably considering the unit being mixed and matched due to unforeseen circumstances outside of their control and dumb mistakes that were indeed within their control. Cornerback Zach McMillian had to sit out the first half due to the horrible targeting penalty called last week at UCF. The senior was able to play in the second half however and contributed four tackles, lining up at a safety spot quite often due to strong safety Adrian McDonald being ejected from the game after punching a Louisville offensive lineman during the first series of the second half. With McMillian at safety, both Turon Walker and Alex Tilman played at corner in reserve for starters Thomas Bates and William Jackson. The foursome played decently in Gibbs zone/man combo coverage schemes allowing Cardinal receivers DeVante Parker (72 yards on 4 catches), Damian Copeland (31, 3) and Eli Rogers (38, 5) to a combined 141 yards on 12 receptions for only 11.8 yards per reception, though each had at least one big play to extend scoring drives (Parker a 39 yarder, Copeland a 22 yarder and Rogers a 20 yarder). Trevon Stewart once again made plays all over the field from his free safety spot, amassing 12 tackles while also recovering a fumble on a muffed punt return. With McDonald out of the game, Earl Foster played more than he has all season and contributed 2 tackles. Unfortunately with the injuries and ejections the combinations played on the back end of the defense hadn't played together a lot and it showed, with safety help coming late which allowed a few huge plays down field during Louisville scoring drives in the second half.
The Cougars special teams played decent, though their return units helped to place them in bad field position for most of the game as while the average starting field position for their offense began at their 30-yard line, those numbers were skewed due to one great 61 yard kickoff return to begin the game. His other three returns totaled 59 yards for a below average of 19.6 per return. Ayers has to learn that if the ball is kicked off deep into the end zone the best thing might be to simply kneel down, which would give the ball to the offense at the 25-yard line. In another reoccurring theme, Damian Payne returned 1 punt for 2 yards also contributing little in terms of field position. Louisville starting field position meanwhile started at their own 32-yard line due to punter Richie Leone's poor punting, his one 62 yarder late in the game notwithstanding. If not for that 62 yarder, he would have averaged 36.1 yards on his 6 other punts, though 2 were placed inside the Cards 20 yard line. A strong head wind might have contributed to this, along with Levine's decision not to have kicker Kyle Bullard attempt what would have been a 46-yard field goal on the Coogs first possession, instead of going for it on 4th & 10 from the Cards 29-yard line. Bullard would later connect on his first career attempt, from you guessed it, 46 yards (with the wind at his back) along with a 22 yarder later in the game. The Coogs coverage teams were on cue as usual with the Cards returning two punts for zero yards, including the muffed punt in which one of Louisville's players was pushed into the returner along with 58 yards on 2 kickoff returns.
In all, in a game in which the Coogs were largely dominated along both lines of scrimmage, the fact that they were down by a TD with possession of the ball with just under three minutes remaining is a testament to the job done by the coaching staff led by head coach Tony Levine. The chip on their collective shoulders (fostered by the mantra of ‘Something2prove' or S2P) along with the calm, cool and collectiveness led by O'Korn allows the team to play with the mindset that they're too young to know what they shouldn't know as they're never truly out of a game until the clock hits triple zeros. With improved recruiting along both lines, this team's future in the AAC looks very good. With a 7-3 record, including 4-2 in conference, the team hosts second place Cincinnati next week at BBVA Compass Stadium, followed by a ‘Black Friday' showdown against the Ponies from SMU at Reliant to close out the regular season.