Game 7 Preview; Temple

Your Houston Cougars look to establish their first winning streak of the season as they host the Owls from Temple University this Friday night (October the 17th) at TDECU Stadium. Game time is set for 8pm (CST) and will be televised by ESPNU.

The Coogs (3-3, 1-1 in American Athletic Conference play) face one of the youngest squads in the nation as head coach Matt Rhule’s Temple squad (4-1, 2-0) is the only FBS team that lists just five seniors on its two-deep depth chart. Rhule (6-11 in his second season in Philadelphia) and is trying to rid the team of its losing mindset as they lost 7 games last season by 10 or fewer points. Thus far he’s seemed to have established confidence as they’ve won four of their first five games for only the fifth time since 1971 (stats provided by the Temple athletics website). Of course their five opponents have a combined 9-24 record but a win is a win when trying to establish team confidence.

Judging by the stats this game looks to be another defensive struggle as both Houston and Temple are top-20 in scoring defense as the Owls hold opponents to a mere 14.4 points per game which ranks them fourth nationally while the Coogs are allowing 19.2, good for 19th. Don’t look for too many yards through the air as both defenses allow 315.3 yards passing, COMBINED. Temple allows 151 yards (5th) while Houston allows 164.3 (9th). While both secondary’s have held up against the pass, neither has defended the run very well as the Owls are allowing 175.6 yards rushing per game (83rd) while the Coogs allow 158.3 (69th), with many of those yards coming off tackle. Look for plenty of run blitzing and both lines to ‘stack the box’ forcing the opposing quarterback to beat them in the passing game which plays into the hands of both defensive coordinators, Phil Snow for Temple and David Gibbs for Houston as both preach turning the ball over. The Coogs are tied second nationally with Utah State and Virginia as the “Third Ward Defense” has forced 19 turnovers while Temple’s tied with Louisville for sixth in the nation with 17 forced turnovers. Both coordinators are aggressive and have coached their respective defensive units to flow fast to the ball as both have size limitations. For the season the Coogs have allowed 322.6 total yards per game (19th) while the Owls have surrendered 326.6 (22nd).

As good as the defenses have performed for both teams, the offenses have struggled just as much, especially for Houston as the offense that has introduced the nation to the veer, Run-and-Shoot, and brought the ‘Air Raid’ back in vogue, is averaging only 27.7 points per game (83rd), passing for only 211.3 yards per game (89th) and rushing for 160.2 yards per game (74th). Temple is averaging 38.2 points per game (24th) but only rushing for 143.2 yards per game (91st), despite Rhule’s old school philosophy of pounding the ball to set up play-action. His passing attack, orchestrated by coordinator Marcus Satterfield, is averaging 230.2 yards per game (71st). Houston OC Travis Bush’s offense is averaging a mere 371.5 total yards per game (99th) to Temple’s 373.4 (97th).

The Owls are led by P.J. Walker (6’1, 200, So.), a classic “dual threat” QB who not only changes games with his feet but has a strong arm preferred for Rhule’s deep play-action passing game. The second year starter (taking over in their fifth game last season) throws accurately whether standing tall in the pocket, or on the run as he’s completed over 60-percent of his 157 passes (61.78%) while throwing for 1,099 yards (or 219.8 per game). He’s tossed 9 TDs against only 4 interceptions. Satterfield will roll Walker out of the backfield often, especially off of bootlegs which give him the option of passing or pulling the ball down and running. While not a particularly physical between the tacklers runner, Walker has great vision, scoring 3 TDs in the redzone and he also makes quick decisive cuts. Look for Satterfield to call a QB draw when in an empty backfield set, even on third-and-long. Due to Walker’s nimble feet his offensive line has allowed only 6 sacks through 5 games, ranking them tied for 17th nationally. The line, while young (only six teams entered the year with fewer starts than TU’s 26) does have some experience and has been playing quite well as all five linemen have started every game this season. Left tackle Dion Dawkins (6’5, 315, So.) was one of only three true freshmen to start at the all-important spot last year before going down for the season after the fifth game with a foot injury. Left guard Shahbaz Ahmed (6’3, 285, Jr.) is a first year starter who played at defensive end last season. Sage veteran Kyle Friend (6’2, 305, Jr.) is entrenched at center, starting for the third consecutive season and has 21 career starts. The right side of the line could be attacked as right guard Brendan McGowan (6’4, 300, R-So.) started only three games last season with right tackle Eric Lofton (6’5, 300, R-Jr.) starting for the first time this season.

At this point in the season you are what you are, on both sides of the ball, and what Gibbs’ defense has been so far this season against the run has been inconsistent, especially up front in their run-fits. The Coogs defensive line must stay disciplined and not get pushed off their assigned gaps or the Owls will gain 4 to 6 yards on first down in Satterfield’s physical down-hill running game. The Coogs starting defensive line of Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.), Joey Mbu (6’3, 310, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) and Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) from strong end to rush end has been solid but not spectacular as it’s their job in Gibbs 2-gap scheme to occupy the opposing offensive linemen so the linebacking core can shoot the gaps for the tackle. Stansbury has been the best lineman in tackles as he leads them with 25 total with Mbu only one behind with 24. Big Joey also leads the line with 4.5 tackles-for-loss while also adding 2.5 sacks, while lining up over the center most of the time. Of the three rush ends who see snaps, Eiland has probably played the best as the former major league baseball minor leaguer has 24 tackles and an interception, while Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.) has added 3.5 TFL with a sack and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228) a distant third on the depth chart as the true sophomore has only 8 tackles and 1 sack through six games thus far. Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) provides depth from the strong side end spot as far as body but has little to show for it with only 9 tackles through 6 games. The best reserve has definitely been Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) as he’s accumulated 3.5 TFL, 1 sack and 1 recovered fumble from his tackle spot. Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.), much like Malveaux, provides some rest for Singleton but hasn’t provided much stats wise with only 5 tackles in 5 games.

One crushing blow for the Coogs defense is the loss of staring Mike (or middle) linebacker Derrick Mathews (6’0, 221, Sr.) as the four year starter was lost for the season after tearing an ACL last week at Memphis. Mathews finishes his career on Cullen Boulevard with 400 tackles and 43 TFL, which ranks him fifth and tied for sixth respectively. As the signal caller and leader for the “Third Ward Defense,” Mathews will not only be missed from a leadership stand point but from a physical one as well as he was always not only quick to read and diagnose a play but also quick enough to shoot the gap to make a tackle-for-loss, sack or cause a ‘QB hurry.’ Mathews also excelled in coverage when asked to drop back in Gibbs zone coverage schemes but last week might have foreshadowed who will take over those zone drops as Sam (strongside) linebacker Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) intercepted two passes at Memphis. Oliphant leads the defense with 69 total tackles (and 33 solo), including 4 for loss, the aforementioned 2 interceptions and 1 recovered fumble. He, like Mathews, also had 2 passes defended and will be asked to contribute more in coverage. As for who replaces Mathews, Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Jr.) is in his second season at UH after transferring from 1-A Morgan State after amassing more than 100 tackles during the 2012 season. Roberts had 4 tackles in the second half last week in seeing his most extensive playing time at UH after Mathews went down. Also picking up his game after Mathews injury was Will (weakside) backer Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) as he had his best game of the season with 6 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup as he seemed to be in the middle of every play. Redshirt and true freshman Caleb Tucker (6’2, 230) and Mathew Adams (6’0, 208) will be asked to contribute more as their playing time increases in reserve. Tucker has 6 tackles through 5 games splitting time with Taylor while Adams has impressed with 9 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble and is a special teams standout.

The Houston linebacking core will be facing a multitude of Temple running backs led by Jahad Thomas (5’10, 170, So.). Last week against Tulsa Thomas received his most extensive playing time of the season as he rushed for 152 yards on only 14 carries including a 68 yard scamper on his first carry from scrimmage. Not surprisingly it was off-tackle, so look for Satterfield to test the Cougars interior rush defense early without Mathews leading the way. Thomas has nice acceleration once he hits the hole and much prefers running forwards as opposed to backwards as he had done most of last year as he played at cornerback as a true freshman. Kenneth Harper (6’0, 225, Sr.) is the Owls bruiser as he’s rushed for 113 yards on the season with 2 TDs. Jamie Gilmore (5’8, 190, Jr.) has 35 carries like Harper and 187 yards on the ground with 1 score. All three backs are used in the Owls passing game off of screen passes and wheel routes. Harper is second on the team with 16 receptions, for 119 yards with a score while averages more than 16 yards off of his 8 receptions with Thomas adding 66 yards off of 4 catches including a 30-yarder for a TD off of a wheel route late in last week’s victory.

If Temple can establish their run game early, look for Satterfield to have Walker go deep off of play-action, especially off of roll outs and boot legs in his spread scheme. The Owls leading receiver is Jalen Fitzpatrick (5’11, 180, Sr.) as he averages over 16 yards per reception (395 yards on 24 catches) with 5 TDs. John Christopher (5’10, 185, R-Jr.) and Nate Hairston (6’0, 185, R-So.) are sure-handed slot receivers as Hairston has 12 receptions for 79 yards with Christopher adding 10 and 66 respectively. One matchup nightmare will be Romond Deloatch (6’4, 225, R-So.) as Satterfield tries to use his size against smaller corners or safeties while using his athleticism against bigger linebackers. So far his inconsistency has allowed him to only catch 5 balls for 67 yards and 1 TD so far this season. Hopefully for ‘Coogfans’ he’ll continue the low production, at least for one more game. Collin Thompson (6’4, 250) is a prototypical physical tight end who saw his first game action last week, coming off of a foot injury, as the transfer from Florida caught his first pass of the season for two yards. The Owls other staring tight ends, Wanemi Omuso (6’2, 255, R-Sr.) and Saledeem Major (6’3, 254, R-Jr.) have a combined 5 receptions for 35 yards this year as they aren’t a big factor in the Owls passing game.

While Walker only averages around 30 pass attempts per game, Satterfield will have him test the Cougars secondary deep, especially after the loss of starting corner back Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Jr.) for the season due to a leg injury at Memphis. Stats wise, the Boise State transfer didn’t appear to contribute much as he only had 12 tackles in 6 games while adding 4 passes broken up. He did intercept a pass however, against the Tigers and took it to the house for 54 yards before a block in the back negated the final 20 yards. Replacing Hightower will be from a combination of Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.), Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.) and true freshman Howard Wilson (6’1, 176). Wilson (Brandon) has 16 total tackles from his ‘nickel back’ spot this season while H. Wilson has added 7 tackles, including 1 for loss, and an interception as well. Walker meanwhile has only 8 tackles through 6 games and no pass breakups as his name is rarely called this season after impressing last year. During his weekly Monday  AAC media teleconference, Cougars head coach Tony Levine mentioned possibly pulling the redshirt off of true freshman Khalil Williams (6’0, 195) to alleviate any depth issues at safety as Gibbs had Hightower moving often to safety in nickel and dime situations. The other corner spot is manned by William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.), who’s earned enough confidence from Gibbs to play on an island as he’s often matched up against the opposing teams best wideout in man-coverage. For the season Jackson has 16 tackles, including 1 for loss, a fumble recovery, an interception and has defended 4 passes.

With both Mathews and Hightower down for the count, Gibbs must lean on safeties Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) even more than he already has, which hardly seems possible, as both are always in the vicinity of the ball evidenced by McDonalds 34 total tackles with Stewart adding 30 ranking third and fourth on the team. McDonald also adds 4 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries to Stewart’s 3, 1 and 0 respectively. “WorldWide” (Stewart) is a true competitor as he may give up big plays (especially when lined up against bigger slot receivers in Gibbs nickel package), but he has a short memory and always ends up making a big play, or two, or three, over the course of a game.

Defensively for the Owls, coordinator Phil Snow often takes the conservative approach with his base 4-3 scheme as the second year assistant likes to pressure opposing QBs with only his front-4 while playing a single high safety, or will sometimes give “cover-2 looks” on the back end. Last week however, against Tulsa, Snow blitzed more than usual as he wanted to force the game into the hands of the young Hurricanes QB. The Tulsa game plan almost worked, as they led 24-21 early in the fourth quarter before two Temple TDs doomed them late in the Owls 35-21 victory, based mainly on Tulsa’s ability to run between the tackles as they amassed 178 yards on 50 carries. Look for Snow to use this same game plan against a Coogs offense with a new starting QB under center (or not under center as they snap the ball out of the shot gun 99.9-percent of the time) in the electric Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.). Ward completed 17 of his 28 passes last week for 188 yards with a scoring strike and an interception (on his first attempt after being fooled by a dropping linebacker). Many of his completions came off of his ability to scramble not to gain yards himself, but to give his receivers more time to get open downfield, something that’s been a major problem this season for Houston’s offense. Bush had Ward roll out quite a few times as over half of his completions were on either designated roll outs, bootlegs or scrambles when the pressure caused Ward to pull the ball down and run. Last week Snow employed various “cross fire” blitzes where two of his linebackers would cross each other into different gaps like many defensive ends and tackles do in “T-E stunts” in order to confuse opposing offensive lines. Look for this Friday night as the Cougars starting 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.) have allowed 14 sacks so far this season, ranking them tied for 88th nationally. The two tackles have allowed opposing ends/linebackers to collapse the pocket one too many times this season while the interior too often gets bull rushed back into the QBs face not allowing him to step up into his throws. The Owls only have ten sacks this season (ranking them 90th), led by defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike (6’2, 250, R-Jr.) and Avery Ellis (6’2, 246, R-So.) with 2 each. As a part of the 25 to 26 Owl Student-athletes who rotate in defensively, Snow usually plays 8 to 9 on the defensive line; Matt Ioannidis (6’4, 285, Jr.) and Hershey Walton (6’4, 300, R-Jr.) at starting tackle with Brian Carter (6’3, 280, R-Fr.) and Averee Robinson (6’1, 285, So.) in reserve. And Sharif Finch (6’4, 240, So.) and Jacob Martin (6’3, 230, Fr.) at the end spot opposite of Oguike and Ellis. Of the group Ioannidis and Finch lead the way with 18 and 17 tackles respectively with Finch adding 3.5 TFL as well. Snow’s strategy seems to be like the University of Miami’s under Jimmy Johnson during the 1980s as far as speed over size. Finch played LB as a true freshman last season, even returning a 65 yard interception for a TD.  Ioannidis, like Mbu, often lines up over center yet still moves the pile enough to lead the line in tackles as he’ll also line up at end. Snow will also blitz from different angles off of a 3-man front on occasion.

Houston needs to get off to a fast start, something they have failed to do in its 3 losses as they have been outscored by 11 points (37 to 26) this season. If the Coogs can score first, look for Bush to try and ‘pound the rock’ between the tackles as the run game has been successful this season IF given a consistent opportunity to do so. Running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) is averaging 6.6 yards per carry, while Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) and Javin Webb (5’8, 175, R-Fr.) average 6 and 7 yards per tote respectively. The problem is the amount of carries. Farrow has only 58 with Jackson carrying only 44 times and Webb a mere 17 (though he wasn’t added into the rotation until a few games ago). While both Levine and Bush want to establish the run, too many ‘three and outs’ have killed the flow or rhythm of the offense and the opponent’s gaining an early lead has forced Bush to play catchup via the passing game. For the season Farrow leads the backs with 385 yards with Jackson adding 263 and Webb with 133. Farrow and Jackson have scored 3 times on the ground with Webb adding 1. Ward’s improvisational ability, via his scrambling skills, is the X-factor opposing defensive coordinators cannot game plan against, as witnesses by Memphis when Ward turned a sure sack into a 64-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter for the team’s first score that sparked the victory.

The Temple linebackers charged with stopping Houston’s run game (and intermediate passing game) are led by Will linebacker Tyler Matakevich (6’1, 235, Jr.). The Dick Butkus clone led the NCAA last season with 99 solo tackles and is at it again this year as he leads the Owls with 40 total and 29 solo. What makes Matakevich so great is his ability to read, diagnose and shooting the gap in order to make a tackle, much like the Cougars Mathews. Nate D. Smith (6’0, 235, R-Jr.) and Avery Williams (5’10, 210, R-So.) are two fast flowing athletic linebackers who play at the Mike and Sam spots respectively. Smith is second on the defense with 29 tackles while Williams adds 17.

If the Owls are able to stop the Cougars on first and second downs, forcing third and longs and onto Ward’s throwing ability, inside receiver Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) must step his game up and eliminate the drops that have plagued him so far this season. The former five star recruit has leads the receiving crew in receptions (26) and yards (402), averaging 15.5 yards per reception with 2 TDs. Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) has stepped up his game the past two contests from his outside receiver spot and has 16 receptions for 182 yards this season. With Ward and Daniel Spencer (ACL tear, out for the year) no longer starting, Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) from the outside and Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) must also become more consistent as Ambles has shown the ability to be great in flashes, his ‘high pointing’ a 25 yard TD off of a Ward scramble an example of his athleticism. Ambles has 11 catches for 137 yards with the aforementioned TD and should be targeted much more the rest of the season. Beadle has only 3 receptions for 30 yards and must have shown to be the ‘best of the rest’ amongst the rest of the receiving crew as he appears just average to me, and below average in blocking ability as he’s been beaten by his man on many receiver screens so far this season. With better blocking ability from the receivers maybe Ryan Jackson can average better than his current 4.7 YPR (61 yards on 13 receptions) with many tackles-for-loss made on running back screens or simple swing passes. I’d like to see Jackson targeted more on wheel routes as he often gets lost in coverage on the deeper route. Farrow averages only 5.6 yards per reception as he has 50 yards on 9 catches.

The Owls secondary welcomed the return of Alex Wells (6’0, 203, Jr.) last week after injuring a knee in their first game of the season. Wells was a JC All-American at ASA College in Brooklyn, NY. If that school sounds familiar it’s the same one that Trevor Harris attended a few years ago. Wells had 8 tackles last week against Tulsa splitting time with Will Hayes (5’9, 192, R-Jr.), who’s the defenses third leading tackler (with 24) behind Matakevich and Smith. The strong safety is Jihaad Pretlow (5’11, 190, So.) who will often line up over a slot receiver in Snow’s nickel package. The Owls safeties need to be able tacklers Friday night as their corners will pass them off in Snow’s multiple zone coverage, whether they be 2-deep or a single safety look. Freshman Sean Chandler (5’11, 180) is a hard hitter who loves to blitz from his cornerback spot with 2 TFL (among his 21), a sack and a forced fumble. Tavon Young (5’10, 174, Jr.) is a sure tackler at the other corner spot. As their shut down corner teams don’t often throw his way, as demonstrated by his 7 tackles through 5 games, but when they do he makes them pay as witnessed by his 3 interceptions for 128 yards including a 93-yard ‘pick-6’ versus UConn. In all the Owls have FIVE defensive TDs this season.

Special teams play has been hardly special for either team so far this season, especially in the kickoff return game as the Owls average only 16.27 yards per return (127th) while the Coogs average a robust in comparison 18.1 (116th). Levine mentioned the special teams play during his weekly Tuesday media press conference and how the return games had to improve in order to give the offense better field position. Last week the Coogs allowed too many big returns to Memphis, as they allow opponents to return kicks 22.5 yards on average (92nd), while the Owls only allow 19.15 (34th) so it might be better if Ayers just takes a knee in the endzone allowing the offense to start at the 20-yard line, instead of inside their own 15 which has happened too far often this season as he’s only averaged 18.4 yards per return, as opposed to his 26 yards last year. Khalif Herbin (5’7, 170, R-So.) and Jahad Thomas average around 18 yards on 11 total returns. Herbin returned a punt 84 yards for a TD thus averaging a robust 15.43 yards on 7 total, meanwhile with Ward no longer returning punts Ayers is performing double duty. In his first game returning punts last week Ayers fair caught 3 balls. The punting and field goal kicking games for the Owls are in the hands of two true freshmen in Alex Starzyk (6’3, 205) at punter and Austin Jones (5’10, 190) at place kicker. Starzyk is averaging 41.48 yards on 23 punts placing 4 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line while booting 4 more than 50 yards. Jones meanwhile has connected on 5 his 8 field goal attempts helping the Owls to avoid the train wreck that was their field goal kicking unit last season (remember the missed PAT and short FG in last season’s 22-13 Coogs win over the Owls?). Houston punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) must put more air under his punts in order to give his coverage team more time to tackle the returner. Piper is only averaging 38 yards on his 17 punts with the short punts allowing Memphis to average 11 yards on its 3 returns last week. For their efforts the Coogs still allow opponents to return punts for only 4.5 yards per punt (32nd) with Temple allowing only 4.8 (35th). Cougar kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) missed the first field goal of his career last week (a 31 yarder), after 18 consecutive makes, but is still 12-for-13 on the season.

Keys to the game

As mentioned earlier, this game is going to be a battle of first downs. This can be translated into meaning first down success will determine third down success, which keeps the chains moving. Both offenses have struggled on third down this year, with the Coogs converting at a 35-percent clip (105th) and the Owls converting a mere 24.2-percent of the time (127th). Most of the third downs for each team have been third-and-longs, due to poor yardage production on first and second down. Whichever team runs more successfully on the early downs will have a much easier time converting their third-and-shorts, when the playbooks are typically open to any play run or pass, as opposed to third-and-long where the defense knows a passing play is typically coming.

Redzone scoring will also be at a premium as both defenses can fly. The Coogs have only scored “7’s” on 13 of their 29 RZ trips (111th), while the Owls have only allowed 4 TDs in 12 opposing trips (22nd). If the Cougars can put up “7’s” instead of “3’s” inside the redzone their chances of winning increase greatly.

Look for Snow to blitz often against the Cougars young QB, especially against the run as Ward does not have the ability to audible out of a bad play, using many ‘double-A gap’ and those “cross fire” linebacker blitzes to force Ward into passing situations. Ward’s improvisational ability against this pressure will also be key in the Cougars offensive success. And of course turnovers are always a key to victory, or defeat. The Owls rank 3rrd nationally in turnover margin with a plus-1.60 while the Coogs are 31sst at plus 1.50.

Final Prediction: Houston – 27 Temple – 21

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