As has been the case most of the season, when breaking down this game we must start defensively. Head coach Tony Levine spoke about the "3rd Ward D" and coordinator David Gibbs after the game via uhcougars.com, "What the defense did today in my opinion, and can certainly speak for our coaching staff, is what they've done to me in the other 11 opportunities. I just had a couple coaches for SMU come over and say ‘man, your guys play hard.' You expect that a little bit, fans would expect that but quite often you put on video or watch games that are televised and say this team plays harder than that team for whatever reason. That's been a common theme for our entire team this season and specifically defensively. Our guys have been flying around; they've been taking a lot of pride in playing good defense. The turnovers, that's a habit and second nature for our young men, and something they're taking pride in. The tackling this year has been outstanding. It's a combination of a number of things. We didn't prepare differently this week than we had the other 11 opportunities defensively. Everything I just mentioned is what I've seen the whole season from our defense. You get a result of a shutout today with that kind of effort. Simplifying our defensive package allows us more time to work on tackling, to work on the fundamentals, to work on creating turnovers, and you've seen the great combination this season of everything I just talked about. We've simplified, we've stressed techniques and fundamentals, and the results to me have been very evident."
In keeping with the "simplification" theme, the beauty of their defensive game plans this season is basic ‘football 101,' IE rushing with mainly their front 4 down linemen (with an occasional blitz thrown in) while playing (five under) cover-2, 3 or ‘quarters' coverages so the ball is always kept in front of them. Then it gets even simpler – locate the ball, swarm to it, force a turnover by stripping or punching the ball out, and finally tackling the ball carrier. In shutting out a June Jones coached team for the first time ever, the "3rd Ward D" forced 4 more turnovers (three interceptions with one fumble) and are now an amazing PLUS-25 while having a +2.08 turnover margin which will surely lead the nation once regular season games complete by the end of next week. Of course it didn't hurt that the ‘Pretty Ponies' quarterback was starting for the first time in his career. Redshirt freshman Neal Burcham came out Friday morning tossing quick passes in order to get his confidence going, mainly on swing routes out of the backfield or simple receiver screens. As has been the case for most of the season, once the ball was out the Cougars defense swarmed to the ball carrier giving virtually no YAC yardage (yards after the catch). Those short minimal gains on first down led to second then third and long situations that forced longer passes which Burcham was not able to complete as he finished the day connecting on barely half of his passes, (27-for-52) for 212 yards for only 7.9 yards per completion. The redshirt freshman also made some bad decisions standing in the pocket as he tossed three interceptions, two to corner back/safety Zach McMillian on overthrows and 1 to strong safety Adrian McDonald (who read his eyes as the roamer) as the defense played in its nickel package most of the day. Corner back Thomas Bates also ‘laid the wood' on a few Pony receivers making tackles one-on-one in space, contributing nice coverage of his own on the back end. McDonald led the defense with 13 tackles on Friday, followed by the usual suspects of Will (weak side) linebacker Efrem Oliphant with 12, Mike (middle) linebacker Derrick Mathews with 11 and free safety Trevon Stewart with 9. Gibbs would later mix in a delayed blitz via Mathews (who also had a sack) occasionally but with the front four doing its job pressuring Burcham, the Ponies never really had a chance to succeed offensively.
The Coogs starting front four of Eric Braswell, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Eric Eiland along with reserves Trevor Harris, Jeremiah Farley, B.J. Singleton and Tyus Bowser shut down the Mustangs running game as they finished the game rushing for only 83 yards (with help from 34 lost yards on 5 sacks) on 34 total carries. The 143.8 rushing yards allowed per game (with one still to be played) is the defenses best since the 2006 season when they allowed 143.4 yards per game. That 2006 Art Briles led team finished as CUSA champion along with a 10-4 overall record. Braswell, Eiland and Harris all provided pressure off of the edge as all three ends produced a sack and a tackle-for-loss, while Singleton (2 sacks) and Farley (1 TFL) did not bulge along the interior. Eiland provided what was the momentum changing play as he used his speed in returning a fumble 61 yards to the Ponies 1-yard line on what could have been a scoring drive for the Mustangs. The Coogs offense scored the very next play, turning what could have possibly been a 17-7 (or 17-3) game to 24-0 just before the half.
Offensively, the team couldn't have come out with a better start as John O'Korn hit slot receiver Daniel Spencer on a post route for a 67-yard TD on their first play from scrimmage. The early lead seamed to loosen up the team and sideline as they had faced early deficits over their past three losses to UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham's offensive game plan had O'Korn firing early and often, mainly out of empty backfield sets as the first year OC wasn't even disguising his intentions of passing to set up the run. O'Korn finished the day completing 25 of his 41 passes for 245 yards with 2 scored but also 2 interceptions. He seemed a bit jittery in the pocket at times as a few of his passes were off-target but his accuracy will improve more as his comfort in the pocket increases. O'Korn's 26 TD tosses and 239 completions are both UH freshman records.
The offensive line of DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson (though Ty Cloud started since it was senior day) provided decent enough protection but still allowed too many hits on O'Korn. They also didn't open up any holes for running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson as the two combined for 89 yards (27 for Farrow, 62 for Jackson) on 17 carries (9 for Farrow), though 37 of those yards came on a nice inside zone play where Jackson burst through the hole for a TD pushing the lead to 31-0 late in the third quarter. As mentioned earlier, Meacham didn't even bother calling any running plays early as the first 11 calls were passes. It wasn't until their third possession where they started to commit to the run game and it showed as the Coogs rushed for only 8 yards (when factoring 10 yards lost on a sack) on 13 carries in the first half. The line gave a better push in the second half as they began wearing down the Ponies defensive front as the Coogs finished the game with 120 yards on 30 carries. Kent Brooks finished up the game with 8 carries for 33 yards including a 1-yard plunge over the top for a score in his final game as a Coog. Neither O'Korn or Greg Ward Jr. were effective in the QB run game as they combined for a total of negative two yards on six carries as the Mustangs were ready for the assorted draws, read option plays and keepers they had successfully run over the course of the season.
Speaking of Ward, Coach Levine said he had a game plan set for the true freshman which was evident Friday. Not only was he used as a QB and punt returner (which we'll get into in a bit), he was also used effectively in the slot as a receiver, catching 5 passes for 48 yards including a nifty 19-yarder in the back of the endzone off an O'Korn scramble. The Tyler native's presence was magnified by the absence of leading receiver Deontay Greenberry who missed the game with a lower leg injury suffered last week versus Cincinnati. Spencer from the other slot position grabbed 6 passes for 33 yards on top of the 67-yard score to begin the game for a total of 100 yards on 7 receptions. Jackson and Farrow caught 3 passes each lined out wide (in empty backfield sets), on dump off passes or screens for a combined 30 yards (17 for Jackson). Andrew Rodriquez and Demarcus Ayers caught 2 passes each, with 17 yards for Rodriquez and 10 for Ayers, and Xavier Maxwell, Larry McDuffey and Wayne Beadle each caught one pass for 17, 16 and 7 yards respectively. Meacham went conservative with his play-calling after gaining the big lead but the blocking by the receiver unit as a whole did not help his play call selection as numerous bubble screens gained little to no yards since the outside receivers could not execute a simple one-one-one block out wide.
The Cougars special teams unit had a superb day as punter Richie Leone averaged 44.2 yards on his 4 punts but more importantly pinned the Mustangs inside their own 20-yard line on all four attempts, with no return yards allowed. For the game, SMU's starting field position was their own 24-yard line while the Coogs started off their drives at their own 41. Ayers did not field a kickoff as the Mustangs tried to kick away from the talented true freshman who entered play 19th nationally averaging just under 27 yards per return. Brooks returned the Coogs only (short) kickoff for 13 yards. As mentioned earlier, Ward replaced Damian Payne as the punt returner but did not have a chance to actually make a play on the field as he was forced into fair catching all three attempts. The kickoff coverage unit was solid as the Ponies returned 4 kickoffs for only a 17.8 return average.
In all, at 8-4 (5-3 in conference) and with only 6 starters graduating (Bates, McMillian, Leone, Maxwell, Forsch and Sims) the future is indeed looking bright along Cullen Boulevard. With a bowl game yet to be played, Coach Levine summed up the season perfectly in his post-game press conference, "What I just told the young men in the locker room is I've been doing this now 18 years, and this is the best team I've ever been a part of. It's offense, defense, special teams, getting along and seniors and freshman getting along, it's young men from Houston and young men from out of state, it's the most family-like team I've ever been a part of. I've said this before, talking about our leadership from within, but when you've got that and the egos are down and everybody's doing their job for the common cause, you've got a chance to have a fun season. I think we'll look back at some fun games, some we've won, some we didn't, but I'm really proud of our student-athletes. The work, the focus they've put in over the course of this regular season, and I thought they did a nice job with the transition from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference."