The talk along Cullen Boulevard over the past few days has no doubt been the switch at quarter back from John O’Korn (6’4, 220, So.), who had started since the third game of his true freshman last season, to Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.). In 16 career starts O’Korn was 8-8, however his play had fallen dramatically from a very impressive season last year where he tossed 28 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. This season alone O’Korn had already tossed 8 picks to only 6 TDs. The dynamics of the offense drastically change with the QB switch under offensive coordinator Travis Bush. Even with the emphasis on establishing a run game under head coach Tony Levine, the passing game was still the offenses bread-and-butter, with an emphasis being placed on was. With Ward, the Coogs have a true multi-threat QB as he cannot only make plays with his arm, but with his legs as well. The true sophomore from Tyler, Texas will definitely need to use his running ability against a fierce Tigers defense which only allows 124.6 yards per game on the ground (through five games this season), ranking them 37th nationally. Memphis, while stout against the run, can be thrown on as they allow 233.2 yards per game through the air, ranking them 63rd. In all they allow 357.8 total yards per game, ranking them 42nd but most importantly only allow 19.4 points per game, which is the 22nd best scoring defense in the nation under third year defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
The Coogs meanwhile, are in the bottom 75th percentile in just about every offensive category including; rushing yards per game (155; 78th), passing (220; 82nd), total yards (375; 93rd) and most importantly, scoring (27.6 points per game; 78th). Another alarming stat is the 12 sacks given up by the offensive line of (from left to right tackle); Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.), ranking them 100th. With that, Bush needs to employ a moving pocket or the use of multiple rollouts from the pistol formation in order to get Ward out onto the edge to avoid a fierce Memphis pass rush that’s seen opposing QBs go down 14 times so far this season, good for 30th nationally. In Odom’s 3-4 multiple scheme he’ll try and confuse QBs with different looks up front including 3, 4 and 5 man lines, with blitzes coming from various angles. The Tigers defender the Coogs offensive line needs to account for on each play is Will (or weakside) linebacker “Tank” Jakes (5’11, 227, Sr.) as he’s FIRST nationally in tackles-for-loss (with 12), forced fumbles (with 3), and seventh in sacks with 6. For his efforts last week at Cincinnati he was named the AAC’s defensive player of the week after amassing a team leading 10 tackles including 3 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. Jakes is joined by Charles Harris (6’2, 243, Sr.) from his middle linebacker spot and is a true ‘sideline-to-sideline defender.’ What the Coogs name the “rush backer” spot, the Tigers name the “Dawg” backer, which is manned by Jackson Dillon (6’6, 230, So.). He along with strongside (or Sam) linebacker Ryan Coleman (6’3, 220, R-Sr) not only excel at rushing the passer but are great at using their athleticism in covering slot receivers and running backs coming out of the backfield. Odom will often use Dillon in coverage in the flat after disguising him as a blitzer by lining him up in a stand-up position just outside the left tackle, only to have him fall back in coverage at the snap. Dillon will also be used on the both sides just to disguise where a potential blitz is coming from. Odom teaches his linebackers to “read and react” on each play and often uses a combination of his linebackers on delayed blitzes, especially between the two A-gaps. The cat and mouse game between Odom and Bush will be interesting to watch unfold for sure.
Up front, defensive ends Ernest Suttles (6’5, 250, R-Fr.), Martin Ifedi (6’3, 275, R-Sr.), Ricky Hunter (6’3, 275, R-Jr.) and Latarius Brady (6’2, 275, RS-So.) along with nose tackles Terry Redden (6’2, 281, Sr.) and Cortez Crosby (6’1, 275, R-Fr.) are solid if not spectacular in the Tigers 3-man fronts as they’re responsible for tying up offensive linemen which allows their linebacking core to make plays unimpeded. Redden is a force up front as he averages almost 4 tackles per game and has 3 tackles-for-loss as Odom loves to use various T-E (tackle end) stunts and twists up front in order to cause double teams that allow the linebackers the freedom they need to make his scheme work. Ifedi is returning after missing the past few games with an injury but the play hasn’t fallen off with the depth of their line showing their isn’t much of a drop off in play between the first and second string. Overall the line is also gap sound meaning they play fundamentally sound.
Cougar running backs Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) and Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) will more than have their work cut out for them trying to find creases in the line against the Tigers front-7, especially between the tackles but Bush should attack the perimeter using Ward on the read-option game. If the outside linebacker crashes down the line trying to tackle the running back, Ward needs to pull the ball from the mesh point (where the ball is placed in the RBs hands) and use his speed to get to the edge. Even the use of the speed-option will be of help especially if Ward is pitching off to an elusive Javin Webb (5’10, 175, R-Fr.), who’s being used more over the past few weeks as his acceleration through the hole helps when the line isn’t creating space necessary for an efficient between the tackles running game. Jackson, Farrow and even Webb have actually been more than decent this season as they all average more than 6.5 yards per carry in the Cougars inside and outside zone running scheme, with Jackson’s 7.1 (on 35 attempts) leading the way followed by Webb’s 7 (on only 19 carries) with Farrow adding 6.7 yards per attempt on his team leading 48 carries. The problem of course is getting the touches as the run game is usually abandoned by the second half as the team has fallen behind in its three losses. For the season Farrow is averaging 65 yards per game followed by Jackson’s 49 and Webb’s 44. They also struggled to establish the run against UTSA and BYU, while ‘padding’ their stats against the weaker Grambling and UNLV, so the success of the run game against UCF was actually surprising.
The speed sweep might also be useful in attacking the Tigers perimeter defense using wide receiver Daniel Spencer (6’0, 195, Sr.) who scored a TD against Grambling on a 35-yard scamper. Ward’s legs on various boot legs and roll outs could also loosen up the interior of the Memphis defensive line as I’m sure we’ll see Bush calling Ward’s number many times on different kinds of QB runs, whether they be keepers, draws or roll outs giving the newly minted starter a run-pass option on certain plays. One thing is for certain though; the Cougars need to establish the run against Memphis in order to open up the passing game. Last week against UCF Jackson rushed for 53 yards on only 8 carries with Farrow adding 50 on just 11 touches in the offenses most productive running game of the season (taking into account the opposing defense they were facing). The X-factor of the game could be Ward’s legs on un-called running plays, or when chaos ensues and the young sophomore has to make a play with his legs in order to keep a drive alive.
The Coogs offense will need to establish the run game because Ward is a different kind of QB from O’Korn, who’s more of a pocket passer as he has more arm strength than Ward in getting the ball downfield. Ward will have to dink and dunk his way down the field to a plethora of receivers led by slot receiver Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) who leads the team with 323 yards on 21 receptions (for a 15.4 yards per reception average) but only 2 TDs. He had a disappointing game last week with 4 drops though he was dealing with the recent passing of his father. If the running game can be established early look for Ward to hit Greenberry with the quick slant over the middle over the Tigers linebackers who are sucked up close to the line off of play-action. The aforementioned Spencer leads the team with 24 receptions for 236 yards and has 2 TDs as well. With Ward now the starter at QB, look for Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) to take his place at one of the outside receiver spots as the one time USC commit has unlimited potential but has yet to realize it as he’s only caught 9 passes through 5 games, for only 97 yards. He has the speed for the deep ball and the athleticism to catch the ball at its highest point as he should be able to take advantage of most cornerbacks he’s facing as most of them are below 6’0 on average. Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) had a nice game last week against UCF from the other outside spot, catching a team high 7 passes for 90 yards with many on drag routes or crossers across the middle of the field against underneath coverage. The second year starter has 12 receptions on the season for 141 yards (11.8 yards per catch) with no scores. Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Fr.) and Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) are the only other reserves to catch a pass as Dunbar has caught 3 passes for 38 yards with Beadle adding 2 and 11 respectively. Jackson and Farrow will also be important in the passing game as they are both more than effective on swing passes out of the backfield and/or in the screen game with Jackson having 54 yards on 10 catches with 1 score and Farrow adding 48 and 7 respectively.
With all this focus on the short passing game for the Coogs offense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bush dial up a deep shot early in the game just to test the Memphis secondary led by cornerback Bobby McCain (5’11, 195, Sr.). As their shutdown corner, teams rarely throw his way, as his 8 tackles through 5 games shows, but he still has 6 passes defended, 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery (returned for 59 yards and a score). As his 10 career interceptions shows, McCain understands receiver route running and will often bait an opposing QB into throwing a bad pass. The other corner is Houston-Westfield native Andrew Gaines (5’11, 177, Sr.), who’s more of a run stopper with 16 tackles to only 1 pass defended. The Tigers two safeties are hard hitters in Fritz Etienne (6’2, 210, R-Sr.) at strong and Reggis Ball (5’11, 210, R-Jr.) at free safety. Etienne is second on the team, behind Jakes, with 23 tackles while adding 3 passes defended and an interception while Ball has contributed 20 tackles and a fumble recovery. Expect to see Memphis use a combination of man and zone coverage in order to confuse the young Cougars starting QB.
Offensively for Memphis, Fuente calls the plays himself in the Tigers multiple spread scheme which averages 35.6 points per game, ranking them 38th nationally. This isn’t the same anemic offense the Coogs faced in last season’s 25-15 victory, as the Tigers produced only five field goals. This season Memphis can hurt opponents on both the ground (averaging 210 yards ranking them 34th) and through the air (231.6 yards ranking them 68th) as they rank 50th nationally in total offense averaging 441.6 yards per game. In his third season Fuente (10-19 record) finally has the offense he envisioned after coaching the same type of scheme at TCU for the previous five seasons before being hired as the head man at Memphis, including 3 seasons as the co-offensive coordinator from 2009 through the 2011 season. After giving up only 17 points to UCF last week, only 17 teams surrender less than the Coogs 18.2 points per game, led by defensive coordinator David Gibbs. While they’ve allowed teams to rush for 165 yards per game (70th), the Houston defense has allowed 148.6 yards per game through the air (7th).
Paxton Lynch (6’7, 230, R-So.) not only has the height to see over the defense but Fuente will often roll his second year starting QB out of the pocket as he’s accurate passing on the run and can take advantage of his athleticism, calling multiple QB runs on keepers and bootlegs. For the season Lynch is completing over 62-percent of his passes while averaging 230 yards per game and is a good decision maker as he’s thrown 7 TDs to only 3 interceptions. Lynch is also physical in their read-option game as he’s scored 5 TDs rushing. Physical is a key word to describe the Tigers offense as they often run power formations out of 2-back sets but can also run out of 1-back, 3 wide receiver sets as well. The run game for Memphis is relied upon by a deep set of running backs led by Sam Craft (6’0, 210, So.) whom rushed for a career high 170 yards last week at Cincinnati on an incredible 38 carries. For the season he’s carried the rock 61 times for 252 yards with 3 scores after being moved from his slot receiver position (where he had 11 catches for 59 yards) after leading rusher Doroland Dorceus tore an ACL at Ole Miss two weeks ago. Fuente will try to get the shifty Craft the ball in a myriad of ways, including speed sweeps from his receiver position and in the screen game as well. The Tigers leading rusher the past two seasons, Brandon Hayes (5’8, 198, RS-Sr.), is a scat back who has 197 yards on 43 carries with a score as they often try to use him on the edge via the speed sweep as well. He also has 6 receptions for 44 yards with a TD as a receiver. If Hayes misses Saturday’s game, as he did the Cinci game, look for more Craft and big Jarvis Cooper between the tackles. The 250 pound bruising freshman averages 6.1 yards per carry as he’s rushed for 171 yards on 28 carries with a score.
The offensive line charged with protecting Paxton and opening holes for the Tigers plethora of backs is relatively inexperienced but is hardly young as though they have 3 new starters, 2 of them are upper classmen. The lineman protecting Lynch’s blind side is left tackle Taylor Fallin (6’6, 325, R-Jr.). Right tackle Al Bond (6’4, 305) is the leader as he’s played in every snap in 31 of his career 39 games. The line is anchored by new starters Michael Stannard (6’2, 280, R-So.) and Tyler Uselton (6’3, 310, Jr-Tr.) at right and left guard respectively with redshirt freshman Gabe Kuhn (6’4, 290) starting at center. The line has allowed 5 sacks in 5 games this season, ranking them 17th nationally tied with 7 other teams.
Defensively for the Coogs, big Joey Mbu (6’3, 310, Sr.) is the fulcrum up front. He had 10 tackles last week against the Knights, lining up right over center. Fellow defensive tackle B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) and reserves Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) must be physical up front and must maintain gap integrity as Fuente will look to establish a between the tackles running game early. While remaining stout up front, strongside defensive ends Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.) and reserve Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) along with stand-up edge rushers Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.), Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) and Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) cannot lose ‘contain,’ or the edge, especially on the numerous speed option runs the Tigers will likely employ to test the resolve of the Coogs front four. It’s only when the defensive line can tie up the Tigers O-line that the Houston linebackers can make plays in the Memphis backfield, led by defensive leader Derrick Mathews (6’0, 221, Jr.) from his Mike linebacker spot. Though Mathews has led the defense in tackles in each of his previous three seasons as a starter, he’s only second this season behind Sam, or strongside, linebacker Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.), 57 to 49. Mathews leads the linebacking unit with 3 tackles-for-loss and is tied with Farley, half of a tackle behind Mbu. Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) has 20 tackles from his Will linebacker spot.
Memphis has plenty of receivers in its quick passing game, with Keiwone Malone (5’11, 155, R-Sr.) leading in both receptions and yards with 21 and 275 respectively. Clear Creek’s (League City) own, Tevin Jones (6’2, 218, R-Jr.) is a bigger receiver who’s second in receptions with 14 receptions for 180 yards and a score. Mose Frazier (5’11, 185, R-Jr.) will start at one slot receiver spot if Craft is forced to line up in the backfield, and has 13 receptions for 130 yards and a score as well. One of the reasons the Tigers are so successful in the redzone, with 17 TDs in 24 possessions, is tight end Alan Cross (6’1, 245, R-Jr.). His size makes him a mismatch against smaller safeties while his speed down the seam does the same against bigger linebackers as he averages 16.1 yards per reception on his 10 catches, 3 of which have gone for TDs. Along with Taylor from his weakside linebacker spot, look for Houston safeties Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) to shadow Cross in the redzone Saturday night. While he’s a tackling machine and has a high football IQ, man coverage has been a weakness of Stewart, especially in the slot matched up against bigger more physical receivers. The two junior safeties are turnover machines with McDonald having forced four (2 interceptions and fumble recoveries each) with Stewart adding an interception along with his 28 tackles. Corner backs Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Jr.) and William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) have had a lot to do with the nation’s seventh best pass defense as Gibbs is not afraid to leave both in man coverage outside, though a mistake can lead to a long TD pass as happened last Thursday against the Knights when Jackson slipped and allowed a 52-yard TD pass on a deep post route. When both Stewart and McDonald are not in cover-2 zone coverage they are allowed to roam the middle of the field or even stack the box against the run, which definitely will be needed against a bruising Memphis run game.
Special teams looks like a “push,” on paper anyway. Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) has grown right before our very eyes as he’s gone from a walk-on to scholarship kicker who’s connected on 18 straight field goals, 12 this season (leading the nation). Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) has made a seamless transition to full time punter as he’s placed 3 of his punts inside the opponents 20-yard line while averaging 38.6 yards per punt. Opponents have only averaged 2.6 yards per punt return ranking them 11thh nationally while the Tigers don’t allow a single yard. In fact their negative .8 yards per return on punts ranks them second nationally as punter Spencer Smith (6’1, 175, R-Fr.) has placed 6 of his 21 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line. Memphis kicker Jake Elliot (5’10, 165, So.) has connected on 21 of his 27 career field goal attempts including 5 of 9 this season with his 4 misses coming from outside of 40 yards. Return games wise, neither team is great as the Coogs only average 19.1 yards per game on kickoff returns with 7 on punt returns while the Tigers average 24.4 and 10.7 respectively. With Ward starting at QB, Levine has Ayers not only returning kicks but punts as well. Ayers first punt return Saturday night will be the first of his brief career. For Memphis, McCain averages 26.5 yards per kickoff return with Malone averaging 7.6 yards on 12 punt returns. A special “shout out” goes to Vince Hall (6’2, 230, Sr.), whom has recovered two fumbles on special teams so far this season.
Keys to the game
As Levine mentioned in his weekly media press conference on Tuesday, execution on first down is always key, but it will be especially important against a Memphis defense that allows opponents to convert only 32-percent of their third down opportunities, ranking them 30th nationally. This against a UH offense that converts only 35-percent of its third downs, 110th out of 125 teams. Third down is when Odom usually dials up an exotic blitz which will likely confuse Ward. The Cougars must start the game not only throwing against Memphis, but catching as well, especially over the middle where the Tigers safeties will lay back leaving the quick slant or easy hitch routes wide open. Odom’s philosophy is to play back, allow a short reception and have his two 210 pound safeties “lay the wood” on receivers over the middle. Both Greenberry and Spencer have been susceptible to these kinds of intimidating hits all season but must catch the ball as McCain and Gaines will be in man coverage on the outside. Unlike O’Korn, Ward does not have the arm strength to complete a deep pass which would loosen up the Tigers zone coverage. The Tigers will also look to put big hits on Ward as he’ll definitely look to pull the ball down and make something happen with his feet if he sees no receivers open quickly. Starting quickly scoring wise never hurts as well, as tempo will be dictated by the team that leads early.
Defensively, the Coogs must keep Paxton in the pocket and make him beat them with his arm down field. Stopping the run forcing third and long will be paramount as well to Gibbs unit. Red zone offense will also determine this game as the Coogs defense will surely keep it close heading down the stretch. Houston is 114th in the nation in converting red zone possessions into TDs as they’ve scored TDs on only 11 of 26 trips in goal-to-go situations. Memphis meanwhile, as previously stated, is 31st converting on 17 of 24 such trips, with Paxton’s running ability inside and out a key. The difference between 7 and 3 points on each trip could be the determining factor in this game. Turnovers will be another key and without the Coogs defense setting up the offense with great starting field position I just don’t think the offense, with a new starter, will score enough points to keep up with an improved Memphis offense.
Final Prediction: Memphis – 24 Houston – 13