Game 9 Preview; Tulane

Your Houston Cougars (5-3) look to continue their three game winning streak and establish a stranglehold on first place in the American Athletic Conference (they currently sit tied with four other teams at 3-1), as they host the Tulane Green Wave this Saturday (November the 8th) at 2:30pm (CST). The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU from TDECU Stadium

The Cougars new on-campus stadium will be hosting its first Homecoming game as the Coogs look to add to their Homecoming tradition, such as defeating heavily favored Ole Miss 17-3 in the Astrodome’s first Homecoming game in 1965. Homecoming 1990 saw Houston and TCU put up record yards as they combined for an NCAA record 1,253 passing yards (563 of which belonged to David Klingler) in a 56-35 win for the nation’s sixth-ranked team. Homecoming 2007 also saw Case Keenum’s first complete game as he led the team to a 35-28 victory over Marshall. These game mentions were provided via uh.edu/homecoming.

When talking about this 2014 squad the first mention must go to defensive coordinator David Gibbs and his 5th ranked scoring defense (16 points per game). His multiple 4-3 scheme allows opponents to pass for only 173.9 yards per game (7th nationally) while rushing for 140.5 yards per game (43rd). The 314.4 total yards allowed ranks the “3rd Ward Defense” 14th nationally. His philosophy in the most simplistic terms is that of aggression; he basically has his front-7 outnumber the opposing offense at the point of attack, leading to pressuring of the quarterback which in turn leads to forced passes ultimately ending up in turnovers, mainly interceptions by the UH secondary via jumped routes. The self-coined “Jack Boys” are tied for 4th nationally with 14 interceptions with free safety Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) leading the way with 3, to add to his 42 total tackles, 5 passes defensed, 3 forced and 2 recovered fumbles. Fellow ball-hawking safety Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) adds 2 picks as do three other defenders but has dropped to fifth on the defense in total tackles with 32 after playing relatively few snaps in their 27-3 win at USF last week with a sore shoulder. William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) played only the second half last week as well after being ejected the second half of the previous game for targeting, but should be back in full tow against Tulane as the shut-down corner also has 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions and 22 total tackles. Losing Lee Hightower (to a season ending injury at Memphis almost a month ago) at the other corner spot hasn’t seemed to slow down defensive backs coach Zac Spavital’s unit as it’s the “next man up” mentality as true freshman Howard Wilson (6’1, 176) stepped in last week in Jackson’s absence and was the only corner on the field at times when USF lined up in their ’22 personnel’ in short yardage situations. In limited, but increasing lately, playing time Wilson has 2 interceptions, 3 passes defended and 15 total tackles. Other corners who have played well include nickel back Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.) and Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.).

In his “next man up” mantra, the job the defense has done in defensive leader Derrick Mathews absence has also been amazing as Gibbs has just mixed and matched after the middle linebacker tore an ACL in that same Memphis game. Sam and Will (strong and weakside) backers Steven Taylor (6’0, 220, So.) and Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) have stepped up their games as Taylor has 22 tackles, including 4 for loss, 2 sacks, a forced and recovered fumble while Oliphant has added 26 tackles (5 for loss), 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and forced fumble himself in the two-and-half games since Mathews went down. For the season Oliphant leads the defense with 83 total tackles (45 solo), including 7 for loss, with Taylor adding 39 tackles, 24 solo. The mixing and matching by Gibbs depends on the down and distance faced as sometimes he’ll go with his nickel package in passing situations, which adds safety Steven Aikens (6’0, 198, So.) in a modified 4-2-5 look. On early run downs true freshman Mathew Adams (6’0, 208) will be inserted in Taylor’s weakside spot with Taylor moving over to the strongside as Oliphant mans the middle, while at other times Taylor mans the middle as both he and Oliphant are versatile. Regardless, Adams has the smarts and speed or Gibbs wouldn’t have him playing as a true freshman. Youngsters Caleb Tucker (6’2, 230, R-Fr.), D’Juan Hines (6’2, 208, R-Fr.), and Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Jr.) have also contributed at linebacker at points this season as well.

Speaking of speed, another reason the defense has performed so well; the speed and flow to the ball, especially up front. Gibbs can play aggressive because of a deep defensive line led by starting interior linemen Joey Mbu (6’1, 310, Sr.) and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.), along with Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) in reserve. The “Rock Boys,” Mbu’s name given to the D-line, will have to hold up at the point of attack against Tulane, allowing the linebacking core to shoot the gaps in order to shut down the Green Wave running game. While contributing 26 total tackles often lining up over the center (including 4.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks), the most overlooked part of Mbu’s game is his contributions in pass defense, as he’s gotten his big mitts up to deflect 4 passes and even caught an interception on a Singleton deflection earlier this season. Farley will be sorely missed next season upon graduation as he uses his limited snaps well in using his smaller frame to out-leverage his opponents on the interior to the tune of 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and a fumble recovery. On the edge Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) has really improved his play from Gibbs stand-up ‘rush backer’ position as he leads all the linemen with 31 tackles, one more than strong side defensive end Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.). Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.), Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) have all added to the depth along the edge of the line with Harris’s 17 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and a sack standing out as he switches from side to side in order to confuse the opposing QB. The unit needs to continue to ‘set the edge’ and not allow cut back lanes, which allows huge chunks of yardage to be given up as often happens against fast flowing aggressive defenses.

Confusing the opposing offense falls right into the weakness of Tulane as third year head coach Curtis Johnson (11-22) is in rebuilding mode (with 20 freshmen being listed on their latest 2-deep depth chart who have started at least one game), led offensively by QB Tanner Lee (6’4, 220, R-Fr.). After missing the previous two-plus games with an injured shoulder, Lee set a Tulane freshman record last week in their 38-14 home loss to Cincinnati as he tossed his 9th touchdown pass of the season. In addition, with 263 more yards he’ll set the passing record with 1,382 yards. Backing him up is Nick Montana (6’3, 207, Sr.). The much ballyhooed son of NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana has only passed for 300 yards in 3 games (including starting the previous 2 before last week) with 1 TD to 2 interceptions while completing 58-percent of his passes (42 of 72) to only 53-percent for Lee. A high completion percentage is important to offensive coordinator Eric Lee’s multiple-spread scheme in order to ‘move the sticks.’ With as much youth as Tulane is playing with, especially on the offensive line (3 sophomores) and at QB, the scheme has to be as simple as can be so the players can react without thinking on the field. For the season the Green Wave are averaging only 18.1 points per game (119th) and their 357.2 total yards ranks them 105th. Their bread is buttered on the ground as they average 166 yards per game rushing, which is tied for 63rd with the Coogs among other teams as they both have exactly 1,328 yards this season (with Tulane having 11 less attempts with 286 but the Coogs having 6 more TDs with 15). Passing wise, the Green Wave are 99th nationally averaging only 191.2 yards through the air.

The Green Waves leading rusher is questionable for Saturday’s game (as of this writing) as Sherman Badie (6’0, 195, R-Fr.) leads them with 595 yards on 92 carries for 3 TDs. His 6.5 yards per carry is 45th nationally and he leads the nation with 3 rushes of at least 75 yards so far this year as he’s the definition of a true home run threat. The “thunder” to Badie’s “lightning” is Lazedrick Thompson (6’1, 217, R-So.) as the battering ram adds 400 yards on 86 carries with a team leading 4 TDs on the ground. Lee sprinkles in two other backs with Dontrell Hilliard (6’0, 191, Fr.) adding 254 yards on 44 carries with a score and Dante Butler (5’10, 215, Sr.) contributing 107 yards on 20 carries. They run behind a line consisting of multi-year starter Arturo Uzdavinis (6’7, 307, R-Jr.) and Colton Hanson (6’5, 311, So.) on the left side, with Nathan Shienle (6’5, 309, R-So.) at center and Chris Taylor (6’2, 312, So.) and Sean Donnelly (6’8, 307, Sr.) on the right side. The basketball starting five (height wise) has started all 8 games and has allowed only 16 sacks so far this year (53rd). Gibbs defense has only racked up 16 sacks themselves (79th), so the veteran DC will have to “scheme up” some pressure against a Tulane team that employs short in-rhythm passes, especially the quick slant over the middle.

The Green Waves leading receiver in TDs (3) and yards per reception (19.7), Xavier Rush (6’3, 202, Sr.), was lost the week of the Cinci game with a knee injury during practice so they’ll rely upon upper classman Justyn Shackleford (5’11, 181, Sr.) and freshmen Teddy Veal (5’11, 185), Terren Encalade (6’0, 191) and Leondre James (6’0, 175). Shackleford averages 14 yards on his team leading 25 receptions (351 yards with 2 TDs). Veal is an explosive athlete who has 256 yards on 22 receptions while Encalade and James add 95 and 101 yards on 11 and 9 receptions respectively. Tight end Charles Jones (6’3, 245, Fr.) is also utilized in their pro style scheme passing game, especially down the seam in taking advantage of one-on-one matchups against smaller safeties, as Jones has 118 yards on 12 receptions with 3 TDs (all in the redzone) while full back (or H-back) Trey Scott (6’2, 212, Fr.) adds 24 yards on 6 receptions, many coming off of play action. Matt Marfisi (6’6, 259, Sr.) is used more as a blocking tight end, often being sent in motion. And as in any pro scheme, the Green Wave also use their running backs in the passing game as Badie is third in receptions with 20 (for 97 yards and a score). Butler adds 103 yards on 14 receptions and Hilliard adds 54 on 9 respectively coming out of the backfield.

With as much talk from ‘Coogfans’ on Gibbs defense, the switch at starting QB from John O’Korn (6’4, 220, So.) to Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.) three and a half games ago has been talked about just as much, and conversely so, as Ward has led the team to three consecutive wins (and a yard shy of four) by completing over 76-percent of his passes (61-for-80 for 545 yards with 4 TDs to 1 interception) and more importantly having his team outscore the opponent 92 to 37 over this three and a half past games since taking over for the struggling O’Korn. The short quick passing game and running threat by Ward (165 yards on 37 carries) has moved the chains which has allowed the team to control their games from a time possession standpoint (35 minutes per game the past 3), which rests the defense. The threat of Ward as a runner, particularly outside of the pocket, has enabled the inside running game to become more established which has helped in the redzone where they’ve crossed the goal line on 7 of 9 attempts over the past 3 games. Overall, coordinator Travis Bush’s unit is averaging 28 points per game (77th) while the improving ground game nets them 166.1 yards (63rd) while passing for only 205.6 yards (88th). The 371.8 yards per game total ranks the UH offense 95th nationally.

As stated earlier, the added zone read threat has forced opposing defensive coordinators to keep a man on Ward opening up the inside running lanes for backs Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.). Notice I say ‘threat’ as the zone read play where the QB actually reads the defensive end, pulls the ball from the RB and runs has rarely been used as most of the inside zone runs have been called  plays from the sideline. For the season both Farrow and Jackson average more than 5.3 yards per carry with Farrow leading with 549 total rushing yards with 5 TDs while Jackson has 400 and 5 respectively. Behind any good running game is a good offensive line, and the Coogs O-line has improved dramatically from the beginning of the season as the blocking of interior linemen Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.) at left guard, center Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Sr.) and right guard Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) along with offensive tackles Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.) on the left and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.) at RT has opened up lanes in their inside and out zone rush schemes.

While the conditions (strong winds) didn’t warrant a heavy pass game last week in Tampa, Gibbs would be best served to strike a little more balance in his offense, especially trying to get the ball to inside receiver Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) more than last week as he only caught 3 passes for 1 yard. For the season the Coogs leading receiver has caught 39 passes for 466 yards and 3 scores. With second leading receiver Daniel Spencer out for the season with an ACL tear, outside receivers Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) and Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) have caught more passes as Ayers has 20 catches for 209 yards while Ambles has 18 and 249 respectively along with 1 TD. Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.), taking over for Spencer, has 12 receptions for 86 yards. Both Jackson and Farrow must continue to be used in the passing game, especially deep on wheel routes in order to continue loosening up opposing defenses for the inside runs to add to the horizontal passing game of the “fly sweep pass,” mainly to Ayers. Jackson has 120 yards on 16 receptions for 2 scores while Farrow has added 82, 16 and 1 respectively.

Defensively, the Green Wave has allowed 30 or more points in five of their eight contests as they allow 29.4 points per game overall (86th) under co-coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington in their multiple 4-2-5 scheme. Tulane allows 177.2 yards per game on the ground, ranking them 87th while allowing 204 passing yards (36th). The total 381.2 yards per game allowed ranks them 58th nationally. Up front Tulane is led by their defensive ends Tyler Gilbert (6’3, 254, Sr.) and Royce LaFrance (6’4, 265, Jr.) as Gilbert uses a menacing bull rush to lead the line with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks with LaFrance second with 6 and 2 respectively. The interior of the Green Wave line is manned by Tanzel Smart (6’1, 303, So.) and Sean Wilson (6’4, 276, Fr.). The youngsters lead the line with 28 and 21 tackles respectively but get out leveraged far too often at the point of attack leading to the opponent rushing for 4.54 yards per attempt, ranking them 85th nationally. Their 5.72 yard per play allowed ranks them 79th overall.

As weakside linebacker Nico Marley’s grandfather use to say, “Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.” Yes as you guessed it, Marley (5’9, 207, So.) is the grandson of the famous Bob Marley. This is definitely Marley’s mind set on the field as he leads the team in tackles for loss, with 9.5, and is second with 52 total tackles as the ultra-aggressive Marley is a powder keg that is always around the ball. The middle linebacker spot is shared by Eric Thomas (5’10, 227, So.) and Edward Williamson (6’3, 222, So.) as both have started due to injuries, leading to only 21 tackles for each (though Thomas does have 4.5 for loss).

Five of the teams’ eight leading tacklers are starters in the Green Wave secondary, led by free safety Sam Scofield (6’1, 191, Sr.), no relation as his last name is obviously spelled wrong, who has 60 total tackles (44 solo), 5 passes defended while adding 2 picks. Hard hitting strong safety Darion Monroe (5’11, 197, Jr.) adds 50 tackles with 2 forced and recovered fumbles as well, while corner Lorenzo Doss (5’11, 187, Jr.) is forth on the defense with 34 tackles, but tied for first with 6 pass breakups with the other corner, Perry Nickerson (5’11, 179, R-Fr.), who leads the team with 4 interceptions. Scofield and Doss also contribute 2 interceptions a piece as the units 12 interceptions rank them 11th nationally. Brandon LaBeau (6’0, 198, Sr.) and Taurean Nixon (6’0, 183, R-Sr.) share the nickel spot adding 23 and 17 tackles respectively.

As for the special teams for both squads? Well there really is nothing special about either unit. In the return games neither team has a unit that averages less than 96th nationally as the Green Wave kickoff return average of 16.7 yards per return ranks them 128th while their punt return unit averages a paltry 3.8 per return (119th). Meanwhile the Coogs only average 18 yards behind Ayers, ranking them a “robust” 121st in comparison. The Coogs 5.8 yards per punt return average rank them 96th with Ayers still learning after taking over for Ward. Coverage wise, Tulane allows opposing kickoff returns to go for 26.7 yards per pop (122nd), so maybe this is the game that Ayers will finally break free after averaging more than 25 yards per return last season. Hilliard makes Ayers look like Devin Hester however as he averages only 15.3 yards per return on 17 total kickoffs in contrast. The Coogs aren’t much better as they allow opponents kick returners 22.1 yards per return ranking them 91st. The Green Wave 8.2 punt return allowed average ranks them 68th, compared to a UH unit allowing only 4.1 yards per punt return placing them 22nd nationally. The Green Wave also struggle in the kicking game behind another true freshman (big surprise!) as Andrew DiRocco (6’1, 180) has missed 5 of his 9 field goal attempts, with 2 of those coming from 20 to 29 yards on out (“yo Adrian!!”). Part of Tulane’s problems with opposing punt returns is their punter, Peter Picerelli (6’1, 190, Jr.) averages only 37.9 yards per punt (“yo Mick I don’t think I can do this no more”), giving his coverage team little time to get down field to make the tackle. Houston’s punter meanwhile, Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) averages 39.4 yards per punt, which is just a tad better than Picerelli. That’s when he doesn’t bobble the snap as he’s wont to do a few too many times for my liking this season. The one constant of UH coordinator Jamie Christian’s special teams unit is kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) as he’s connected on 13 of 15 attempts this year, including 6 for 6 from 40 yards out, and 19 of 21 on his career.

Keys to the game

The keys for success remain the same no matter the opponent for the Coogs. Offensively they must establish the run early in order to control the game. As mentioned earlier, with Ward at the helm the offense has crossed the goal line on 7 of 9 opportunities in the redzone. Meanwhile, defensively, Tulane has done a nice job of forcing field goals as they’ve allowed opposing offenses to score only 17 TDs on 35 trips inside their 20. That 49-percent TD conversion rate ranks them 22nd nationally. Scoring 7’s instead of 3’s is of significant importance as Tulane just doesn’t have the firepower to get into a shootout with Houston, especially against the stout “Third Ward Defense.” Both teams want to “pound and ground” with an occasional play-action pass mixed in. Scoring for both sides could also be aided by turnovers, with Houston ranking 11th nationally at a plus-8 turnover margin while Tulane ranks tied for 27th at a plus-5. Self-inflicted mistakes will also be costly for either side as the Cougars played a “clean game” last week in committing only 1 penalty for 5 yards. On the season they average 7 penalties per game, costing them 63.5 yards (96th and 93rd) while Tulane averages 8.9 for 79.1 (121st and 120th) respectively. Finally, if the Coogs can get out to a big first half lead the Green Wave simply haven’t shown the ‘mustard’ to come back at any point this season as they only average a mere 6 points per game in the second half, though to their credit they did score 2 TDs last week versus the Bearcats. In all Houston out-talents a young Tulane team in the end.

Final Prediction

Houston – 34 Tulane – 13


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