The Mustangs at 4-2 in the American actually have a half-game lead over the Cougars (4-3, 7-4 overall) and at 5-5 are battling for their bowl game lives as they need one more win to become bowl eligible, with a home game remaining versus conference leader UCF on December the 7th. Besides playing for self-pride and a better bowl spot themselves, the Coogs definitely have motivation on their side via last season's embarrassing 72-42 loss in Dallas as UH QBs tossed six interceptions against the Ponies, with three being returned for touchdowns. Add in three fumbles and the Coogs amassed an amazing NINE turnovers that fateful October evening in Dallas. The Cougars turned that page once the season ended and lead the nation this year with an incredible PLUS-23 in turnover margin ranking first nationally, as they've gained 36 turnovers (20 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries) to just 13 on offense (6 interceptions, 7 fumbles). The turnaround has truly been remarkable under first year defensive coordinator David Gibbs as he constantly preaches forcing turnovers via stripping the ball after gang tackling a ball carrier. I remember chatting with Gibbs over the off-season as he told me what his message was to his unit; 1.) Focus on about forgetting about what's happened in the past, "We need to build some confidence on defense, find a comfort zone and stay consistent in what we're doing because obviously I'm the third defensive coordinator in three years so the truth is these kids need some stability and consistency." 2.) Gibbs mentioned his spring priorities as well, "First you start teaching fundamentals and specific techniques that fit your scheme and as you're teaching those, what happens is the players will stand out as far as their strengths and weaknesses and then obviously you tailor your scheme around that."
Gibbs has done a masterful job at this (tailoring his scheme to his players' strengths) as he knew his unit wasn't going to be able to overpower its opponents in the physically stronger AAC, so he preached speed and quickness at shooting the gaps and getting to the ball in mass in order to force fumbles via punching and stripping the ball away. It's the ultimate "bend but don't break" mentality as the defense allow opponents a total of 431 yards per game on the season (96th nationally and 8th in the American), with 282 of those yards coming through the air (119th, 8th) and 149 on the ground (43rd, 9th). Most importantly however, they are only allowing 22 points per game (30th and 5th) as they allow opponents to drive from the 20 to the 20 while bowing up in the red zone, allowing only a 52-percent touchdown conversion rate (25th nationally), or the unit simply produces a turnover as they're second nationally in interceptions (20) while being tied for first in forced fumbles (16) behind the nations individual leader in turnovers in free safety and defensive co-captain Trevon Stewart (5-foot-9, 192 pounds. The true sophomore out of Patterson, Louisiana has recovered 6 fumbles and picked off 4 passes this season. He possesses the type of football IQ and instincts that Gibbs has taken advantage of by placing him in the right spot in order to make plays all season long.
The offense the Cougars will be battling Friday is in stark contrast to the types of offenses they've faced over their past three losses against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati's run first power based schemes as the Ponies run a pass first, second, third and sometimes fourth scheme under sixth year head coach June Jones (36-39 at SMU and 112-80 overall). The ‘Run-n-Shoot' guru added the modern day father of the ‘Air Raid,' Hal Mumme, over the off-season as the team's passing game coordinator. UH fans know all about the ‘Air Raid' as it's taken their offense to new heights over the past six seasons under offensive coordinators Dana Holgorsen then Kliff Kingsbury. Both come from the ‘Mumme Air Raid coaching tree' as both learned their trades under former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, who learned from Mumme from his time at Kentucky in the late 90s. Added to the offense has been the horizontal screen passing game as the ‘dink and dunk' passes later set up the post routes of Jones' deep vertical passing game as the Ponies are 7th nationally and first in the American in passing yards per game with 365. While only averaging 96.4 rushing per game (118th, 9th), the quick short passes Mumme's added act as part of the run game as most would consider them long hand offs. The Ponies average 461.4 total yards per game (31st, 2nd) while averaging 30.8 points per game (56th, 5th) as they only convert 56-percent of their red zone possessions into TDs which ranks them 90th nationally. This has been considered a huge weakness of both the ‘Run and Shoot' and the ‘Air Raid' as both offenses rarely use a fullback or tight end which are useful in blocking when the field becomes condensed inside the red zone area.
Of course the Mustangs offense totally changes if their starting QB doesn't play, as Garrett Gilbert (6'4, 223, Sr.) is listed as questionable coming off a knee injury in their last game at USF this past Saturday. The former Texas Longhorn ,who took 27 hours in Austin during the Spring of 2012 in order to graduate from the '40 Acres,' had been making a huge improvement this season as it has just been his second year in the same offensive system over his five year career in Austin and Dallas. The 2008 National Gatorade Player of the Year from Lake Travis is fourth nationally in passing yards per game (352.8) while completing nearly 67-percent of his passes (335-of-504) with 21 TDs to 7 interceptions. If he does play, the Cougars defense will face a QB who has total control of his offense as he's not afraid to take a shot in the pocket and will also run the ball via their read-option game, particularly in the redzone. If Gilbert is unable to go, backup Neal Burcham (6'3, 207, RFr.) takes the reigns. Though he's only 13-for-23 passing this season for 122 yards with an interception and TD each, he played in a pass first offense in high school (Greenbrier, Ark.) and is said to be the type of QB Junes and Mumme look for as "he has good zip on the ball and specializes in making intermediate throws to the center of the field," according to Scout.com recruiting analyst Mike Coppage.
Whoever the Mustangs QB is come game time, he'll have perhaps the best group of wide receivers in the conference to pass to in slot receivers Jeremy Johnson (6'0, 179, Sr.) at the ‘Y' and Darius Joseph (6'0, 195, So.) at the ‘X,' along with outside receivers Keenan Holman (6'1, 185, Sr.) at the ‘Z' and Der'rikk Thompson (5'11, 190, Jr.) at the ‘X.' Johnson will make the tough catch over the middle and is the leader of the group as he leads the unit in both receptions (100) and yards (1,007) while Holman leads in TD receptions with 8 as he's the offenses leading ‘home run threat' averaging nearly 16 yards per reception. Johnson and Joseph are first and fourth in catches per game nationally at 10 and 8.8 grabs per game respectively, and all four starting Mustang receivers have at least two 100-yards game in 2013; Johnson (6), Keenan Holman (4), Joseph (3) and Der'rikk Thompson (2). Both Johnson and Holman have 200-yard, 3-TD games on their resumes this season. The preceding were all according to the ‘Game notes' provided by SMUMustangs.com.
The Cougars secondary hasn't covered very well for the most part this season as Gibbs just doesn't have the athletes to play anything but a soft zone on the back end of his defense. Most of the time he'll go with basic cover-2 or 3 looks as corners Thomas Bates (5'10, 183, Sr.), who leads the team with 11 pass breakups, nickel back William Jackson (6'1, 175, So.) who's seeing more and more action as the units number 2 corner, JC transfer Turon Walker (5'11, 190) and even Alex Tillman (5'10, 187, Jr.), who saw increased action last week, all don't have the size or cover ability to jam receivers hard at the line of scrimmage. Zach McMillian (5'10, 178, Sr.), a multi-year starter at corner himself, has been moved to safety over the past few games with the results saying as much, as he's been late in helping corners with coverage over the top. Several times last Saturday, including on a 41-yard TD pass, McMillian allowed the QBs eyes influence where he was supposed to be, instead of playing his responsibility in being at a certain spot at a certain time, or where the corner (T. Bates in this case) thought he was going to be as he ‘passed his receiver off' to a spot on the field where he thought he would receiver safety help, only to be left out to dry for the deep 41-yard score. If this miscommunication occurs Saturday the Coogs will get burned more than once, though Gibbs has been great at making second half adjustments over the course of the season. As good as Stewart is in creating the aforementioned turnovers, he doesn't excel in man coverage, especially against slot receivers so his matchups against both Johnson and Joseph will be ones to keep an eye on Friday afternoon. Strong safety Adrian McDonald (5'10, 191, So.) has done a nice job this season as the ‘roamer' when he's the high safety when they go into their man/cover-1 looks as the true sophomore is tied with Stewart for the team lead in interceptions with 4 and his 78 total tackles place him fourth on the defense, 12 behind Stewart, along with his 7 pass breakups placing him one behind Stewart's 8.
The key to helping the Cougars secondary will be their pass rush against a young SMU offensive line which has allowed 29 sacks this season, ranking them 103rd nationally and 7th in the American. The line features three first year (full time) starters in left tackle Chauncey Briggs (6'5, 295, RFr.), right tackle Kris Weeks (6'5, 310, So.) and right guard Ben Hughes (6'4, 290, Jr.). The ‘veterans' of the line (as in full time starters in years other than this season) are left guard Ben Gottschalk (6'5, 293, Sr.) and 2012 CUSA All-Freshman team member Taylor Lasecki (6'3, 296, So.) at center. They'll be facing an undersized UH defensive front (ran out of their 4-3 base) in run stopping strong ends Eric Braswell (6'5, 268, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6'6, 252, RFr.), ‘rush' ends Trevor Harris (6'5, 233, Jr.), Eric Eiland (6'2, 236, So.) and Tyus Bowser (6'3, 226, Fr.) with starting tackles Joey Mbu (6'3, 312, Jr.) and Tomme Mark (6'3, 288, So.) with Jeremiah Farley (6'0, 283, Jr.) and B.J. Singleton (6'4, 285, RFr.) filling out the 9-man rotation. Bowser has been a freshman sensation off the edge leading the down linemen with 5 sacks and 9 ‘hurries,' while Harris has adjusted nicely himself as a speed rush specialist with 6 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks after playing receiver (among other positions) at Brooklyn's ASA College the past few seasons. While Mark and Mbu have quietly had nice seasons it's been Farley at tackle who's impressed the most as the former defensive end has been able to use a deceptive first step in shooting his gap in leading the D with 8 TFL while adding 3 sacks and being a general pain for opposing offensive linemen as he's collapsed pockets without gaining a stat for it (TFL or sack) but has caused chaos in opponents backfields nonetheless.
The fact that Gilbert leads the offense in both carries (83), yards (267) and TDs (6) tells you all you need to know about the Ponies rushing game this season. Injuries have had a lot to do with their production, or lack thereof, as bruising former UT transfer Traylon Shead was lost for the season after 4 games. If Burcham starts at QB, look for Jones to rely more on Prescott Line (6'0, 233, RFr.) and K.C. Nlemchi (6'1, 220, So.) to help move the chains. If Line sounds familiar to UH fans he should as he's the younger brother of Zach Line, who's currently a full back with the Minnesota Vikings. Much like his older brother, Prescott is a bruiser who loves contact as he averages 3.4 yards per carry (223 yards on 65 carries) with 3 TDs. Nlemchi, out of Katy's Cinco Ranch, has carried the rock 51 times for 238 (4.7 yards per carry) with a score on the ground. Things are so bad depth wise for the Ponies backfield that nose guard Nick Reed has taken a few snaps at practice over the past few weeks. Knowing June Jones and his bag of tricks, I wouldn't be surprised to see a pass to the burly 6'1, 296 pounder off of play action at the goal line against an aggressive set of Cougar linebackers.
The leader of this unit and defensive co-captain is middle (Mike) linebacker Derrick Mathews (6'0, 214). What the undersized junior lacks in size he more than makes up for in speed and instincts as Mathews manages to just always get to the ball in making a game changing impact play. For the season he's second on the team in total tackles with 99, TFL with 11 and leads with 6 sacks. He's also amassed 4 passes defended, 2 forced and recovered fumbles and added a ‘pick-6' against BYU to boot. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the defense has been the play of Efrem Oliphant (6'1, 230) at the weak side (Will) spot as the junior was running third string after spring ball. All he's done this season is lead the team in tackles (111) and TFL with 12 while registering 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles while recovering one fumble as the heat seeking missile attacks a gap and gets to the ball with authority to say the least. Strong side (Sam) linebacker Steven Taylor (6'0, 211) has also played surprising well for seeing his first game action this season. He excels in coverage as he leads the linebacking unit with 6 passes defended and will have his hands full with the Mustangs slot receivers when he drops back in Gibbs various zone coverages. The redshirt freshman is fifth on the team in tackles with 71 while adding 7 TFL and 4 sacks as Gibbs likes to use him in pressure off the edge in odd (or 5-man) fronts to give opposing offenses a different look.
The Mustangs are 20-2 over their past 22 games when scoring first, so it'll be the job of the Cougars offense, under offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, to get his offense back on track after three consecutive games scoring 17 points or less. The first year OC must vary up his play calling in my opinion as forced runs have put the offense into second and then third and long downs which have consistently killed drives over the three games, all close losses against ranked opponents (a 19-14 loss at UCF followed by 20-13 losses to Louisville and 24-17 against Cincinnati). After averaging 42 points per game before the Halloween night game versus USF, while passing for nearly 325 yards and totaling nearly 500 yards per game the offense has dropped to scoring 33.9 points per game just four games later, ranking them 38th nationally and 4th in conference. That's nearly 9 points less than they were averaging at the beginning of the month. The run game has also suffered as they've dropped from averaging 171.9 yards per game on October the 31st to just over 140 today (89th, 6th). Passing wise they're averaging 287.6 yards per game with John O'Korn (6'4, 205) passing for 240 each game. The famed Ft. Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas product is completing 59.8-percent of his passes (214-for-358), down from the nearly 65-percent that Halloween night against USF. He's also passed for 24 TDs, which leads all true freshman, to only 6 interceptions, though 4 have come over the past 3 games. O'Korn is fearless in the pocket as he'll stand tall knowing he's about to take a shot and has the kind of toughness and moxie that teammates follow as he's become a true leader of the team in a short period of time, as he did not enroll early for spring ball as many true freshmen will these days. He has surprising athleticism and can affect the game with his legs by scrambling out of the pocket extending plays for his receivers downfield, or on various called QB draws when linebackers turn their backs on him in pass coverage.
Besides the failed play-calling on first down, O'Korn has been sacked 9 times over the past 3 games while being taken down by opposing defenses only 14 times over the first 8 games. The offensive line of DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 320, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Jr.), Kevin Forsch (6'3, 307, Sr.) and Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, So.) from left to right tackle have regressed as the season has progressed as the unit has not given O'Korn the time needed to go through his progressions off of either 5 or 7-step drops. Sims and Johnson at tackle have allowed opposing ends to push O'Korn up into the pocket while the interior of the line has allowed tackles to crush the pocket leaving O'Korn with little choice but to either get rid of the ball earlier than he wants, leading to incompletions, or forcing him to leave the pocket causing sacks or throw aways. Most importantly, this has all occurred against opposing defensive lines (or front fours) meaning the past three opposing DCs have had to blitz little which has allowed them to drop their back-7 off in coverage, confusing the true freshman QB even more. The preceding stats obviously need to be taken with a grain of salt as this has come against defenses all ranked in the top-20 in terms of both scoring and total offense yards allowed.
The Ponies defense on the other hand loves to bring the pressure in their 3-4 base, under sixth year coordinator Tom Mason. The effectiveness of this pressure needs to be questioned as the Mustangs allow an average of 34.9 points per game (104th, 10th) and 424.8 total yards (89th, 7th) with 277.5 of those yards through the air (118th, 7th) and 147.3 on the ground (40th, 7th). Despite having 5 of their defenders drafted during the 2013 draft and 7 currently on NFL rosters, talent remains aplenty on the Mustangs roster, especially up front. Their down linemen are a bit undersized for a 3-4 front but can bring the pressure nonetheless; Beau Barnes (6'5, 255, Jr.) and Zach Wood (6'3, 258, So.) are the defensive ends and flank nose guard Darrian Wright (6'2, 280, Jr.) in the middle. Barnes is especially troublesome for opposing offensive linemen as he leads the Ponies with 5 sacks and 9.5 TFL while adding an interception with Woods adding 5 TFL, a sack and fumble recovery. Weakside outside linebacker Jonathan Yenga (6'2, 215, So.) uses his athleticism along the edge as he's tied with Barnes in both sacks (5) and TFL with (9.5). Randall Joyner (6'3, 250, Sr.) and Kevin Pope (5'10, 225, Sr.) lead the defense with 83 and 78 tackles respectively from their inside Buck and Mike linebacker spots. Joyner is more of a gap filling run stopper as he's forced 4 fumbles on the season. Pope uses his speed in both making plays from sideline-to-sideline as he's produced 9 TFL, 3 sacks and defended 4 passes in coverage. Stephon Sanders (6'3, 250, Jr.) leads the team with 10.5 TFL and is third on the team with 70 tackles from the Sam, or strongside, outside linebacker spot. With all four backers being swift of foot Mason is often able to disguise where he's sending the blitz from.
In order to slow down an aggressive Mustangs pass rush, which is responsible for 25 sacks on the season, look for Meacham to dial up a draw play or two early on. Both Kenneth Farrow (5'11, 216, So.) and Ryan Jackson (5'10, 183, So.) have been slowed as of late as Farrow hasn't found many holes along the interior, rushing for only 126 yards on 26 carries (4.8 yards per carry) with one score over the past three games after rushing for 333 on 60 (5.6 ypc) over his previous five. Jackson over the same three game span hasn't been able to find a burst along the edge as he's rushed for only 62 yards on 25 carries for a meager 2.5 ypc, after rushing for 531 yards on 105 carries (5.1 ypc) with 5 scores.
To open up the running game O'Korn must come out firing in my opinion, trying to hit his receivers on short tosses via swing routes to the backs out of the back field (with Jackson and Farrow being fourth and fifth in receptions with 22 and 21 respectively), or quick inside screens with bubble screens to the outside receivers, though the receivers blocking on outside screens needs to improve in order for them to be more effective. Deontay Greenberry (6'3, 198, So.) is the leader of the Cougars wide receiver crew and one of the tops nationally as the slot receiver leads the unit in receptions (76), yards (1,106) and TDs (10). If the running game is on early, look for O'Korn to hit Greenberry on the quick slant down the seam as this has been the most effective pass route for the Coogs this season. Daniel Spencer (5'11, 195, Jr.) plays at the other slot and is the second leading receiver with 43 catches for 664 yards with 5 scores but has had the opportunities to amass many more receptions and yards if not for one small problem; the ability to catch the ball consistently. Xavier Maxwell (6'1, 180, Sr.) is their third leading receiver with 388 yards on 27 receptions with 4 of them being TDs. Larry McDuffey started the season as the starter at the other outside spot but he, along with his replacements (due to a concussion); Markeith Ambles (6'2, 215, Jr.), Aaron Johnson (6'0, 207, Jr.) and true freshman Demarcus Ayers (5'10, 173) have all been inconsistent as well, especially concerning drops as none have developed that chemistry with O'Korn yet.
Covering the outside receivers will probably be up to Pony cornerbacks Kenneth Acker (6'0, 195, Sr.) and Chris Parks (6'1, 190, Sr.) as Acker leads the secondary (and is 23rd nationally) in passes defended with 13 and interceptions with 2 while Parks leads the defense with 2 fumbles recovered. Greenberry and Spencer will be bracketed over the middle of the field with a combination of the Mustang inside backers along with safeties Jay Scott (6'1, 210, Sr.) and Shakiel Randolph (6'5, 201, So.). Scott at strong safety is the leader of the secondary as the senior can play down in the box where he has 4 TFL or in coverage as his 7 passes defended and 2 interceptions demonstrates. The Houston Strake Jesuit product also has 55 tackles which is fourth on the team.
The Mustangs special teams haven't played special as of late, especially their return units as they average only 19 yards on kickoff returns and 8 on punt returns. After true freshman JaBryce Taylor was carted off the field early in the month on a kickoff return, Deion Sanders Jr. (5'7, 180, Fr.) who's the son of "Primetime" has been their primary kick returner averaging 20.9 on 13 returns, with one being for 87. Acker meanwhile, has taken time to get use to his role as the primary punt returner as he's brought back only 5 returns for 13 yards for a less than impressive 2.6 yard per return average. And here I thought the Cougars receiver Damian Payne (6'0, 210, Jr.) was probably the least impressive punt returner in the nation as he's averaging only 4.3 yards per on 15 total returns. Perhaps Payne will finally meet a coverage unit that's his match in ineffectiveness come Friday morning as the Mustangs have allowed opponents to return 15 punts for 240 yards so far this season for an average of 16 yards per return, ranking them 118th in the nation. The Coogs meanwhile are 16th holding opponents to only 3.9 per punt return. Ayers on the other hand has been a true game changer for the Coogs as the true freshman has averaged 26.8 yards on 33 kickoff returns including a 95-yarder versus BYU earlier this season. The Ponies hold opponents to an average of 21.9 per kick return while the Coogs hold their opponents to 22. The Mustangs hold the advantage in the kicking game as place kicker Chase Hover has connected on 16-of-19, including 5-of-6 from beyond 40-yards out. The Coogs Kyle Bullard recently took over for senior Richie Leone two weeks ago as field goal kicker because of his inability to connect from long distance. Bullard has hit all three of his attempts including from 46 yards versus Louisville after Leone missed four of his five from plus-40. Leone however will end up punting next season in the NFL as he's averaging 43 yards on 59 punts, pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line an amazing 29 times, giving the Coogs a real advantage in the field position game. Mike Loftus averages 40 yards on his 32 punts, including 7 of 50 plus for the Mustangs.
One major factor that could swing this game could be the use of true freshman QB Greg Ward Jr. (5'10, 175). Though he's probably been the best slot receiver besides Greenberry since making the switch at Louisville, Ward is most effective as a change of pace QB as he has the kind of speed that defensive coordinators cannot game plan for especially when he pulls the ball down and decides to run on assorted keepers and zone read plays. Defenses meanwhile cannot ignore his passing ability as he's completed 18 of his 26 passes for 300 yards and has shown to possess a strong arm downfield as well. Head coach Tony Levine on Ward's use this Friday during his weekly Tuesday media press conference, via uhcougars.com, "At this point as I stand here, we have a specific plan for Greg already. What you'll see Friday is what I'm talking now, but I don't want to tip our plan to SMU at this point. Greg came in and provided a spark for us. He did a nice job when he was in there. You look back at the Rutgers game, at the South Florida game; he's come in and had some success. He comes in this game with only two weeks of playing receiver at level and makes some key catches as well. He's a young man we talked about; we've got to find a way to get him the football, get him on the field, and you will see that this Friday in some creative ways."
Coogfans need to drop their wives/girlfriends off at the Galleria early Friday morning, hop on 610 and get to Reliant to salute the Cougars senior class, as Levine mentioned at his presser, "Our senior class is a relatively small class with only 14. I'm really proud of them. We've been through some real, real highs in our programs and we've been through some tough times as well. You talk about a young man that, it's unique, when I look back at my coaching career and I was at a place for three years and a place for two years and a place for eight months and a place for three years and a place for two years and I've been here six years. When I stand up here in team meetings, we have our student-athletes sit by classifications in school, so our seniors sit up front, followed by our juniors, then sophomores then freshmen. When I stand up at these team meetings and I talk, I look in the front row; I see the (Richie) Leone's and the (Zachary) McMillian's, guys that I can literally picture like it was yesterday sitting in their house as they were seniors in high school recruiting them and now they're seniors in college. It goes by so quickly and that Friday is going to be an emotional day. These guys have meant so much to our program. The example they've set for the young men that sit behind them has been incredible. To see these guys grow, not only as athletes, but as students off the field. To sit in Richie's house, I flew into Atlanta six weeks in a row and sat in his house six different evenings. He was 17-years old, now he's 21, 22-years old. To see the development off the field, the change, the maturity process, not that they were immature, but just now they're 21, 22, 23-years old, now they're getting to either have a professional career and move out into the real world and that's why you get into coaching. To be around young men and hope you have some kind of impact on their life away from football. I couldn't be more proud of these young men. Austin Lunsford (offensive linemen) is a young man in our program who has done a great job of everything we've asked. He's going to graduate next month; he's already got a job lined up. David Piland (QB) is certainly going to graduate next month and unfortunately can no longer play. We'll recognize all 16 of those student athletes this Friday. It seemed I was just telling them, and they tell me this, Richie came into my office and said `It seemed like you were just saying 18 days until the Southern game,' and now we have 4 days left, so it goes by quickly and certainly we'll be sad to see them leave."