With a month layoff Cougars head coach Tony Levine had said that new offensive coordinator Travis Bush would add a few "wrinkles" to a Cougars offense that had been sputtering over the last half of the season. Consider said mission failed as the offense came out lethargic as 6 of their first 7 possessions were "3 & out." It would have been 7 out of 7 if not for a fumble on the second play of the 4th possession by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., in as a slot receiver. In all the offense produced 21 total first quarter yards with John O'Korn completing only 3 of his first 8 passes for an anemic 5 yards. It wasn't until midway through the second quarter when they produced their first 1st down of the game, on a 12-yard out to receiver Markeith Ambles. Levine had mentioned the return of receiver/running back motion across the backfield in order to confuse opposing defenders, getting them off of reading their keys. For whatever reason this motion was absent throughout much of the first half as Bush had the offense running plays out of the same formations seen throughout much of the season, under then offensive coordinator Doug Meacham (who left to take the same position at TCU earlier in December).
In fact, the Cougars could only amass 23 total first half yards, compared to 232 to the Commodores, as many of O'Korn's first half passes were inaccurate, giving his receivers no chance to gain yards after the catch (or YAC yardage). Vanderbilt's defense should be given much of the credit for hurrying O'Korn in the pocket as they not only sacked him four times but harassed him countless others, mainly behind a four-man pass rush. The Commodores also gave the Cougars offensive line odd numbered defensive fronts, often sending a linebacker (which the RBs could not block one-on-one) from different angles to harass the true freshman QB. UH right tackle Zach Johnson was replaced in the second half by veteran Rowdy Harper, who had started all of last season at the position, with senior Ty Cloud taking Harper's spot at left guard. Neither Harper nor LT DeAnthony Sims could contain Vandy's defensive ends as they either forced O'Korn to step up into the pocket before he wanted, or the defensive tackles would collapse the pocket forcing the St. Thomas Aquinas product outside leading to the ball being thrown away. The inept offensive line play also failed to help open up enough holes up front in order to establish an effective enough run game to give the offense the balance it needed in order to be successful. As an aside, with Glenn Elarbee leaving to take the co-OC role at Arkansas State earlier in December, and with 3 new O-line coaches in 4 seasons, the new line coach for the Coogs could perhaps be the single biggest assistant coaching hire of Levine's short two-plus season tenure as UH head coach as the line definitely needs to be reworked over the offseason.
For the game the Coogs rushed for 146 yards on 27 carries, but one of those carries went for 62 yards on a nice run by receiver Daniel Spencer in that dominating UH third quarter. Kenneth Farrow rushed for 28 yards on only 8 carries with Ryan Jackson adding only 6 on just 2 carries. Also, neither O'Korn nor Ward could spark the run game on keepers as they rushed for a combined 35 yards (all from O'Korn) on 12 carries. With no run game to lean on, O'Korn completed only 6 of 14 first half passes for a meager SIX yards with Ward completing one pass (on two attempts) for 10 yards. With Vandy dominating up front, the Commodores secondary was left free to jump routes on the back end, limiting UH receivers to ZERO YAC yards as the ‘Dores corners and safeties did a nice job of tackling one-on-one in space. With little time to throw, Bush called for very few deep passes as all seven first half completions were on underneath routes. Houston receivers helped themselves very little as they also were horrible blocking wise as the few screens Bush did call went for little or no yards as Vandy's linebackers and secondary were able to run right through them.
As ineffective as the Cougars offense was in the first half, the defense, under coordinator David Gibbs, held up reasonably well despite spending most of the half on the field as Vandy held the ball for over 17-minutes and ran 38 plays (for 232 yards) to 30 for the Coogs (for only 23 yards). Behind many "heavy" sets, using multiple tight ends, full or H-backs, Vandy used multiple player shifts to overload one side of their formation giving them a numbers advantage at the point of attack, usually on the left hand side as the Cougars defensive line failed to set the edge defensively as the Commodores ran effectively outside on many toss sweep plays and counters. The Cougars D pretty much shut down the inside run game as many of the ‘Dores ‘wildcat' plays ran for little yards in the first half, with an exception of an 8-yard TD scamper off of a QB read option keeper by Patton Robinette on a 4th & 1 play that gave the Dores a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. Their first touchdown came on their first possession via a run and catch for 50 yards by NFL bound Jordan Mathews, who had an outside lane open up via a nice block from fellow receiver Jonathan Krause on corner back Thomas Bates. Mathews had five catches for 143 yards and two scores, all in the first half. His second TD reception came on a busted coverage from Bates and safety Trevon Stewart (who also allowed Mathews a 39-yarder in one-on-one coverage in the second quarter), as the Coogs super sophomore got caught looking in the backfield, giving Mathews a post to the inside where Bates thought he had help. The 50 yarder gave Vandy a 24-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Robinette completed 6 of his 15 first half passes for 154 yards while Vandy rushed for 80 behind Jerron Seymour's 39 yards. About the only first half positive for the Coogs was Zach McMillian's interception in his final game as a Coog.
Offensively, the third quarter was a coming out party for Ambles, who caught five passes for 95 yards (for a total of 6 for 105 for the game), including a 58-yarder on a slant-and-go, setting up a field goal to make it a one-possession game at 24-17. Their second scoring drive of the quarter was capped off by a nice 6-yard fade also caught by the former five-star former signee out of Southern Cal. Bush did a masterful job of isolating the physical receiver in man coverage as he set him as the single receiver on one side of their formations with trips set to the opposite side on numerous plays. The offense revved up big time in the period as they accounted for 309 yards (to only 47 by Vandy), with O'Korn passing for 213 yards in the period on 10-of-17 passing with 2 scores. His other TD toss came on a beautifully drawn up stop-and-go route as Vandy's corners bit on the ‘stop' by Deontay Greenberry (6 total receptions for 96 yards), allowing the American Athletic Conference's leading receiver to scamper 67 yards that tied the game at 24 near the end of the period. The Coogs first score of the period came on a 6-yard run by Farrow that was set up by a fumble recovery by corner William Jackson, which was forced by defensive tackle Jeremiah Farley. The reserve tackle continued with his stellar play this season, along with starters Tomme Mark and Joey Mbu. As well as the team played on offense in the third period, the defense was just as effective as they held Vandy to 46 yards rushing on 13 attempts (with 35 on 6 carries by Brian Kimbrow) with Robinette not connecting with any of his receivers on only three pass attempts (on four total possessions in the period). Gibbs had his unit load the box which shut down Vandy's run game for the most part. The linebacking trio of Derrick Mathews, Efrem Oliphant and Steven Taylor once again led the way in the defensive effort, with Taylor having perhaps the best game of his young career as he had 14 tackles including 3.5 for loss, with Oliphant adding 11 and Mathews 6 for his efforts.
Unfortunately for the Coogs, the third quarter would be as good as it got for their fans as the fourth quarter reverted back to how the game was played in the first half, with Vandy outscoring the Coogs 17-0. Using their superior offensive line to wear down the Coogs smaller defensive front, the ‘Dores rushed for 86 yards on 15 carries behind the multiple TE and FB/HB sets (with multiple player shifts) used in the first half. Many of the carries were by both Seymour and Kimbrow in their ‘Wildcat' package, especially on a 7 play 82-yard drive (all rushing) in which the ‘Dores took the lead on a 13-yard run up the middle by Kimbrow. Two plays earlier, Seymour ran for 38 yards out of the ‘Wildcat' as he broke a tackle from Stewart(10 total tackles), who tried to strip the ball instead of simply wrapping him up the smaller physical back for the tackle. Offensively O'Korn completed only 4 of his 16 passes for 8 yards as Vandy's pass rush once again limited O'Korn's time in the pocket, while also targeting Ambles zero times. More importantly he threw two costly interceptions which led to 10 of Vandy's 17 points in the quarter. In a year in which the Coogs dominated in the turnover margin, both teams turned the ball over three times in the game. Houston's three turnovers gave Vandy the ball on their own 17, 18 and 3-yard lines, setting up 2 TDs and a field goal while Vandy's 3 turnovers only accounted for 7 points (on Farrow's 6-yard run in the third). On one of O'Korn's interceptions he was hit just as he was throwing the ball, with the other coming after he stared down Greenberry, with Vandy's All-SEC corner Andre Hal dropping off of his man to jump Greenberry's route as he read O'Korn's eyes. For the game O'Korn completed 20 of his 47 passes for 228 yards with 2 TDs and 2 interceptions.
While only 5 starters graduate (3 offensive line starters along with McMillian and Bates on defense), the one starter who will be missed the most will be punter Richie Leone, who punted an amazing 10 times for a 43.6 yard average, flipping the field many-a-time. Kyle Bullard hit his only field goal attempt, from 30 yards, and Demarcus Ayers returned 4 kickoffs for 137 yards, including a 62-yarder in the fourth in which he almost broke for a score. Penalties also were costly for the Coogs, as they have been all season long, as they committed 8 for 72. One of their 3 personal fouls ended up being very costly as defensive end Eric Eiland was charged for a personal foul after a third down stop late in the second quarter. The 15 yard penalty gave Vandy the ball at midfield, with the next play being the 50-yard TD toss to Mathews, which gave them the 24-0 lead. All in all, with 17 starters returning next season and coming off of an 8-5 team, the future is looking very bright along Cullen Boulevard.