Game 11 Analysis – Cincinnati

The Houston Cougars lost to the Bearcats of Cincinnati 24-17 before 20,197 at BBVA Compass Stadium this past Saturday. With the defeat, the Cougars have now lost three games in a row. Their four losses on the season are by a combined 19 points and are now 7-4 on the season and 4-3 in the American Athletic Conference.

Any type of post-game analysis of the teams' troubles must begin with its offense. After averaging 41.1 points per game with 483 yards of total offense (with 320 of those yards coming through the air) through the first 8 games of the season, the Coogs have scored 17, 14 and 17 against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati with total offense outputs of 367, 195 and 278 respectively albeit against defenses that were all ranked within the top-20 in terms of scoring and total offense allowed at the time of the games. Rushing wise led by the duo of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, the offense has rushed for a combined 243 yards but for only 33 yards (on 31 carries) against Cinci. The passing game hasn't fared much better for true freshman John O'Korn as he's mustered passing efforts of only 231, 121 and 245 yards over the past three games but more importantly has only completed 47.7- percent of his passes (53-of-111) with 4 interceptions and 3 touchdown passes. Through the first 8 games of the season O'Korn had completed passes at over a 65-percent clip which is what makes the Coogs version of the ‘Air Raid' thrive – short completions which constantly move the chains.

With any offense, everything begins up front and the offensive line of DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson simply has not been getting the job done lately. The unit has given up 9 sacks over the past 3 games after giving up only 14 through the first 8 games, never mind the countless pressures put on O'Korn forcing him to throw the ball earlier than he's wanted. The most telling tale of this maligned unit is the fact that these sacks/pressures have come against the front four (or down linemen) of their past three opponents, meaning these teams have rarely had to blitz in pressuring O'Korn. Bottom line is if your five can't block their four your offense is in big trouble and the results have manifested themselves on the field. Also when opponents are able to produce pressure with only their front 4 they're able to drop 7 in coverage making windows downfield smaller, which has definitely been the case during the Coogs losing streak. With limited time in the pocket O'Korn has been forcing throws into coverage which have ended up in either incompletions or interceptions. When he's had time in the pocket, the true freshman has been holding onto the ball too long which resulted in two of the three sacks against the Bearcats Saturday afternoon, one resulting in a fumble giving their offense great field position (at the Coogs 13-yard line), leading to an easy TD making it a 24-7 game early in the third quarter. Redman at center also has to improve on his snaps as a large amount of them have been high and wide forcing the play off-rhythm before it even begins. If not for O'Korn's hand-eye coordination many of the snaps would end up in fumbles. With his lack of consistency in snapping, I'm surprised there haven't been more plays like the high snap leading to a 16-yard loss as the ball sailed over O'Korn's head on their final drive of the game needing a touchdown to tie it.

Of course when O'Korn has been able to make throws the wide receiver core has dropped too many passes over the course of the season, again leading to wasted downs putting the offense in third and long situations which ultimately ends up killing drives. Besides an injured Deontay Greenberry (who had 64 yards on 6 catches with 1 TD) the unit has been way too inconsistent over the course of the season. Fellow slot receiver Daniel Spencer (5 receptions for 66 yards) is a solid number two receiver but even he has dropped too many passes this season. Besides Greenberry (1,106 yards on 74 receptions for 10 TDs) and Spencer (664, 43 and 5), the talent level drops considerably because of talent, or lack thereof (Xavier Maxwell and Aaron Johnson), lack of concentration (Markeith Ambles) or youth (Larry McDuffey, Andrew Rodriquez, Demarcus Ayers). Shane Ros's sure hands at slot receiver sure have been missed this season, which hopefully have not been affected after successful rehab from knee surgery over the past season.

This brings us to another aspect of what's been troubling the offense throughout the season and over the last three games in particular; play calling. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham believes in giving what the defense allows, as in the numbers dictating whether or not a run or pass play is called. If there are only 4 or 5 in the box, a run is called more times than not. If the box is stacked (6 or more), then a pass is more prevalent as the back end of the defense is more likely in man coverage. Unfortunately, neither Farrow nor Jackson has the ability to quickly burst through the small holes the offensive line has been able to produce over the past three games and neither are game changers speed wise. Jackson has produced only 62 yards over the past 3 games on 25 total carries for a meager 2.5 yard per carry average, after rushing for 531 yards on 105 carries (5.1 ypc) with 5 TDs scored on the ground over the first 8 games of the season. Farrow has produced 126 yards on 26 carries (4.8) with one TD over those same 3 games after producing 333 yards on 60 carries (5.5) with 4 scores over the first five games in which he was healthy. The problem isn't in forcing the run in as much as when Meacham is running, particularly on first down. Against the Bearcats, Meacham called 16 first down runs (out of 26 first down calls), many via a handoff off of an inside zone play which produced only 47 yards. This 2.9 yard per rush average left the team in 2nd and long or in an obvious passing down far too often not only Saturday but over the course of the season. And why Jackson isn't being used more in the passing game is beyond me, as he's averaging 2 receptions per game (22 in 11 games) for 253 yards with 2 scores. The wheel route in which he's often covered one-one-one by either a linebacker or safety has rarely been called this season.

Also the use of the Diamond formation continues to confuse me, as it's a formation designated for a power run call. The Coogs have been better between the tackles with Farrow when the offense has been spread out, forcing defenses in turn to spread out as well. With the diamond (3 backs in the backfield alongside the QB), defenses are forced to stack the box themselves. On one particular play out of the diamond, Meacham had the left side of the line leave a Bearcat defensive end unblocked so they could run up to the second level to block their assigned linebackers and/or safeties. This left fullback Luke Stice to block Cinci's Brad Harrah one-on-one. Of course the 6-foot-5, 258 pound Harrah ‘ragdolled' the 6'0, 218 pound Stice, making a tackle-for-loss. Meacham should at least use the formation to throw play action since receivers are in man coverage downfield more often than not out of this formation.

I've also been perplexed at the use, or lack of use, of Greg Ward Jr. over two of the past three games. After being inserted as a ‘change up' at QB over the first 8 games of the season, Ward wasn't used at QB at all in their two biggest games of the season at UCF and Louisville, even with O'Korn struggling. After more inconsistency against the Bearcats on Saturday, Meacham finally decided to insert Ward at QB and he promptly gets the team back into the game on both his legs and arm (completing 5 of his 9 passes for 74 yards). Ward has the type of unpredictability that opposing defensive coordinators cannot game plan for as his legs can produce positive yardage on plays which appear to be start out as a loss. The true freshman also has a stronger arm than many give him credit for, connecting with Maxwell for a couple of deep posts this season. Lastly I'm not a fan of the routes Meacham has the receivers running which are basically the quick slant over the middle (which I'm actually a fan of especially to Greenberry as that's how he's amassed most of his yards this season), the short crossing pattern and the deep post which O'Korn has rarely connected on this season. The screen game out wide has been ineffective for the most part as the receivers have not done a good job of blocking on the perimeter, allowing plays to be blown up for short or no gains. To me it seems as a large part of the offense has been missing compared to seasons past via YAC yardage (or yards after the catch) as the receivers just haven't been able to make that first ‘juke' move, making defenders miss so they can get out in space for huge chunks of yards. This could be a recruiting problem as the talent may be lacking, but UH coaching staffs of the past have been able to "coach up" receiver units who have been lacking in "star" power as far as recruiting rankings are concerned. The lack of big plays downfield has hindered their ability to sustain drives all season long.

It's been a long time since one could say the defense has been saving the day along Cullen Boulevard, but that's been the case this season under defensive coordinator David Gibbs ‘bend but don't break' mentality. The ‘3rd Ward D' has only allowed 22 points per game this season on average, ranking them 30th in the nation despite allowing 431 yards per game, which ranks 96th. The biggest reason for the lack of points allowed is no doubt their ability to force turnovers (as they're first in turnover margin), which they did again on Saturday versus the Bearcats; forcing 3 total on 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery that was returned for a TD that got the team, and crowd, back into the game making the score 24-14 midway through the third quarter. Unfortunately Bearcat QB Brendon Kay torched the D for 386 yards (on 29 for 50 passing) as he was rarely touched in the pocket. The communication between the Cougar corners and its safeties was also severely lacking as the corners would ‘hand off' his receiver to a safety in cover-2 or cover-3 zone coverage downfield, only for the safety to be nowhere near where he was supposed to be. This lack of communication occurred on more than one instance between Thomas Bates and Zach McMillian (who was playing safety in their nickel packages), one resulting in a 40-yard TD reception by Chris Moore. With McMillian playing deep safety, Trevon Stewart was in man coverage against Bearcats slot receivers throughout the afternoon. Man coverage is clearly not Stewart's strong suit as he allowed huge yardage to his receivers, particularly on crossing patterns. The true sophomore and defensive co-captain is better suited to ‘read and react,' leading the nation with 10 turnovers produced (6 fumbles recovered with 4 interceptions) as his football instincts always leads him to the ball. Strong safety Adrian McDonald also intercepted his fourth pass of the season in much the same fashion, as a ‘roamer' in the middle of the field while reading the QBs eyes. Alex Tilman and William Jackson also added passes defended while both are seeing more playing time with McMillian's move to safety.

With minimum blitzing on the day, Kay was able to stand in the pocket as the sixth year senior not only used his arm but his legs to hurt the defense, rushing for 43 yards on 7 carries (not factoring in 2 sacks for 23 lost yards), including a 14-yard TD in which Kay carried several Cougar defenders on his back for the final few yards which was the Bearcats final score of the game. At 230 pounds, the fact that Kay was bigger than just about all three Cougar linebackers displayed the difference in terms of size along both lines for both teams. In all the Bearcats rushed for 172 yards on 40 carries with 81 coming on a final 12-play drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock, ultimately resulting in a missed field goal giving the Cougars offense one final shot trailing 24-17 with under a minute remaining in the game.

The Cougars front four of Eric Braswell, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Eric Eiland with Trevor Harris, Jeremiah Farley, B.J. Singleton and Tyus Bowser in reserve played decently, but the undersized unit obviously wore out towards the end of the game. Braswell might have played his best game of the season with 2 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble off of a hard sack that led to the Stewart ‘scoop and score' for a TD bringing the score to 24-14 in the third. One name, that while not popping out in the stat sheet but is always being singled out for his play is that of Farley. Playing defensive tackle won't gain a player many stats, but the coaches know the men in the trenches are the ones whom affect the game the most, and Farley along with Mbu, Mark and Singleton have performed admirably this season despite allowing 149 rushing yards per game this season, ranking them 43rd nationally. Linebackers Derrick Mathews (Mike), Efrem Oliphant (Will) and Steven Taylor (Sam) all played their usual strong games at linebacker, with Taylor stepping up against the Bearcats as he intercepted his first pass of the season in which he undercut a slot receiver's route. Oliphant totaled 13 tackles Saturday, including 2 for loss, with Mathews adding 9 tackles and a pass breakup.

Cougars punter Richie Leone continued his fantastic season for the special teams unit as he crushed the ball, averaging 44.7 yards on 10 punts, pinning the Bearcats inside their own 20-yard line on five of them. Coverage wise the Coogs allowed 15 total yards on a punt return (2 yards) and one kickoff. Returns wise Ayers returned only 2 kickoffs for 30 total yards after averaging nearly 27 per over the first ten games of the season. Cincinnati intentionally kicked away from Ayers leading to Damian Payne returning 2 kickoffs for 37 total yards while also fair catching his only punt return opportunities. Fortunately for the Coogs, the Bearcats special teams, in particular their field goal kicker, is the unit responsible for keeping them in the game as Tony Milano missed three of his four field goal attempts, while the Coogs Kyle Bullard connected on his third career field goal, this from 23 yards bringing them to within one possession at 24-17 near the end of the third.

Despite the three game losing streak, things appear bright for the football program as many (myself included) predicted no better than a 7-5 record (with 6-6 my prediction) as the Coogs host SMU next Friday at Reliant to close out the regular season. Head coach Tony Levine on that game, via, "We have one more opportunity at home in six days. We have 16 young men, and 14 seniors who will be recognized before the game. One man who is graduating in a couple weeks, and already has a job lined up. Another young man who can no longer play the game of football. They will be recognized for the final time in front of their hometown fans, alumni, and student body. We'll learn from these mistakes (of Saturday's game) tomorrow in meetings and move on for SMU." 

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