Both programs have spiraled since one of their last meetings, of which happens to be a great memory for many of the current Cougars and Coogfans almost four years ago; November the 25th, 2011 as an 8th ranked and undefeated Houston team defeated an undefeated (in conference) Tulsa club 48-16 on the road to win their last Conference USA Championship. The Coogs lead the overall series 20 to 18. Seven current Cougars participated that ‘Black Friday’ victory in head coach Bill Blankenship’s first season as head man of the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa would go on to win CUSA in 2012 as Blankenship, a Tulsa native, won 19 of his 27 games through two seasons. Unfortunately, like the autumn winds, change has not worn well during Blankenship’s tenure as his teams’ have won only 5 of its past 22 over the past 2 seasons as rumors talk of his dismissal if he doesn’t win one of his final two games as his career record currently sits at 24-25, (2-8 this season, 2-4 in the American Athletic Conference). In fact, much has changed for both programs who as members of Conference USA for eight years together, it was either Tulsa or Houston that won the C-USA West Division title and played in the championship game in seven of those years. Tulsa won the West Division four years (2005, 2007, 2008 and 2012) while Houston won the West in 2006, 2009 and 2011. The only season that neither Tulsa nor Houston won the C-USA West was in 2010 when SMU and Tulsa tied for the title, but SMU won the tiebreaker (stats gathered from Tulsa’s game notes). Houston head coach Tony Levine has guided the Coogs to a 19-16 record since being named head man for the final game of the 2011 season after being the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator since 2008 under Kevin Sumlin’s staff. They sit at 5-4 this season, 3-2 in the American after losing at home against Tulane 31-24 two weeks ago.
Tulsa’s current problems can be pointed mainly at their youth. According to their latest 2-deep depth chart they have 15 freshmen and sophomore’s listed on their offense and 13 on defense. Coming off of a disappointing 31-7 loss at UCF last week, Tulsa is averaging only 23.6 points per game which ranks them 102nd nationally. They move the ball fine between the 20’s as they average 142.7 yards per game rushing (91st) and 271.9 through the air (34th), in offensive coordinator Denver Johnson’s pass heavy multiple spread scheme (it should be noted that Blankenship calls his own plays however). Overall the Golden Hurricane average 414.6 total yards per game (61st). Blankenship would prefer more balance but his team has fallen behind so often that they are forced to pass to catch up (their 40 passing attempts per game ranks them 17th nationally). Preferably, Blankenship would want to employ a power run game first in order to set up a deep passing game off of play-action. The fourth year head coach will also use wide receiver motions in order to distract opposing defense of their cues and even incorporate receivers into the run game via fly or jet sweeps. Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs must emphasize discipline to his defense all week in order to avoid falling threat to a big play downfield. Gibbs preaches an aggressive fast flowing defense that attacks opposing ball carriers, but this same aggressiveness is also their weak point, especially when it comes to misdirection plays. The Coogs “Third Ward Defense” allow opponents to score only 17.7 points per game (9th). Opponents rush for 138.7 yards per game (34th) while passing for 180.9 (12th) for an overall average of 319.6 (12th).
The Golden Hurricane are led by quarterback Dane Evans (6’1, 215, R-So.). He’s a hard-nosed tough ‘gun slinger’ from Sanger, Texas. For the season he’s completed nearly 55-percent of his passes (213-for-390) for 2,645 yards. Though he’s thrown 12 interceptions overall this season, he hadn’t thrown one in his previous 166 attempts before the UCF game last week where he predictably tossed 3 against the Knights proving he will sometimes force the ball into small coverage windows (as younger QBs often will). Evans 20 touchdowns rank him 25th nationally as does his 264.5 yards passing per game. He’s not afraid to pull the ball down and run either as Blankenship does employ the QB run game in his offense with simple draw or boot plays, while also adding some read-option elements. They’ll also pass off of the boot leg, particularly deep when in their play action game and to avoid having Evans standing in the pocket too long as his offensive line has allowed 22 sacks on the season (88th).
As Tulsa looks to establish the run early, it will be important for the Houston defense to stop them with their front four in order to give the secondary help in the intermediate and deep passing game, so as always, look for the battle in the trenches to be one of the determining factors in this game. The Golden Hurricane’s line is led by left tackle Garrett Stafford (6’5, 314, Jr.) who will be starting in his 24th career game Saturday. The right tackle will be Blake Belcher (6’5, 300, So.) who has 10 starts in his second season. The left guard is first year starter Chris Wallace (6’5, 311, So.), who’s started each of their previous 10 games. The right guard is manned by Davis Walton (6’5, 285, Sr.) who’s starting his fourth game at the spot this year (among his 12 career starts at the right tackle and guard spots). The center is manned by Dylan Foxworth (6’1, 281, So.), who’s making his 17th career start in this his second season. They’ll be facing a stout defensive line led by starting defensive tackles 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. Mbu leads the interior linemen with 27 tackles, including 4.5 for loss (one more than Farley), and 2.5 sacks. On the edge Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) has really improved his play from Gibbs stand-up ‘rush backer’ position as he has 35 tackles, one less 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 19 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks 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.
Tulsa has a foursome of running backs that share time led by Zack Langer (6’0, 215, Jr.), who leads the unit with 677 yards on 167 carries and 3 TDs. He’s the bruiser of the group as James Flanders (5’10, 190, So.), Tavarreon Dickerson (5’9, 180, So.) and D’Angelo Brewer (5’9, 185, Fr.) are all more scat back types. Flanders has 359 yards on 79 carries with Dickerson adding 132 on 34 respectively while Brewer has added only 86 yards on 26 carries but will be used in “Wildcat” packages. Meeting these backs in Tulsa’s inside and out zone run scheme will be the heart of the Cougars ‘Third Ward D,’ their linebackers, led by Sam and Will (strong and weakside) backers Steven Taylor (6’0, 220, So.) and Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.). The hard hitting duo have really stepped up their game since Mike (middle) linebacker, and defensive captain, Derrick Mathews was lost for the season with a torn ACL four games ago. Oliphant will move to the middle when the Coogs go to their nickel and sub packages as he’s quick to diagnose plays, shed tackles and meet either the QB or RB in the opponent’s backfield. For the season Oliphant leads the defense with 96 total (45 solo), including 8 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions when dropping back in Gibbs varied zone schemes. Taylor has 46 tackles, including 5 for loss, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles as he’s really improved his game in his second season. 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 as he has 25 tackles, including 3 for loss and a sack through 9 games in spot duty. 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.
When passing, Tulsa has a plethora of receivers who see regular snaps, but three they try to scheme into mismatches; slot receiver Keevan Lucas (5’10, 198, So.) and outside receivers Keyarris Garrett (6’4, 221, Jr.) and Josh Atkinson (6’2, 195, So.). Lucas’s 81 receptions are 7th nationally while his 1,037 receiving yards are 11th and his 11 touchdowns rank him 4th. The Golden Hurricane will spread the field placing Lucas in the slot often, forcing slower safeties into one-on-one coverage. For the Cougars defense, covering slot receivers has usually been the job of free safety Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) which has given him trouble throughout the course of the year as man coverage has not been his strong suit. To add to this, Stewart hurt his shoulder two games ago rendering him ineffective in last week’s 31-24 loss versus Tulane as he accumulated a career low one tackle. Coach Levine stated he’s “good to go” this week during his weekly media press conference on Tuesday. For the season, “Worldwide” has 33 tackles, 5 passes defended and 2 interceptions (including one ‘pick-six’). Garrett is second for Tulsa in receptions and yards with 39 and 550 respectively and is a bigger receiver they’ll try to match one-on-one on the outside against Gibbs smaller corners, mainly William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.), true freshman Howard Wilson (6’1, 176), nickel back Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.) along with Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.). Jackson has been the most effective cover corner as he leads the defense with 7 passes defended to add to his 27 total tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery. Wilson has added 3 passes defended and 2 interceptions as his playing time has increased as the season has progressed. When in their nickel package, Steven Aikens (6’0, 198, So.) has received more playing time and has shown improved play in helping to replace Mathews. Strong safety Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) is adept at playing center field, reading plays quickly and swooping in quickly for a tackle (third on the team with 49), pass breakup (second with 6), or intercepting the pass (first with 4 for 119 return yards). McDonald is a ball hawk in Gibbs cover-two or single high schemes, who also leads the defense with 3 recovered fumbles on the season. Atkinson is Tulsa’s third big receiver and is right behind Garrett in both receptions (33) and yards (136). Both have caught 3 TD passes. Conner Floyd (6’0, 202, Jr.) and Bishop Louie (5’10, 170, Fr.) have caught 16 passes each with Louie adding 207 yards and a score with Floyd having 136 and 3 respectively as more the possession receiver type. Louie is also cat quick and will be used on the jet sweep as Will Lucas. Derek Patterson (6’0, 190, Jr.) is a burner and averages over 22 yards per reception and is just recently starting to play more after various injury problems as he has only 9 catches this year. Tulsa also uses an “H” Back which they can use as either a blocking back, which is 6-foot-1, 235 pound Colby Scott’s job, or as a tight end/full back hybrid they can either pass to or run with. This description fits what they do with Mandel Dixon Jr. (6’2, 238, Jr.), as he has 6 catches for 62 yards with a score receiving and 17 yards on 7 carries with a score rushing.
Offensively for Houston, the Coogs must get back to the identity they had during their 3-game win streak of establishing the run first as they averaged 184 yards during those three games until they only rushed for 86 yards two weeks ago against Tulane. For the season the Coogs average 157.7 yards rushing per game, ranking them 74th. They pass for only 220.1 yards per game (78th) for 377.8 total yards (86th) and most importantly only average 27.6 points per game (76th). Against Tulane, offensive coordinator Travis Bush should have tried to establish a between the tackles run game against an average Green Wav defense. This in turn would have set up shorter second and third downs which, in theory, would have kept the chains moving as well as kept the time of possession in their favor while giving them better field position, three important factors in winning according to Levine.
Fortunately for Bush, his offense faces a Tulsa defense that gives a new meaning to the word putrid. In coordinator Brent Guy’s 4-2-5 hybrid scheme, the Golden Hurricane are allowing 38.4 points per game (119th). They allow 216 yards per game rushing (110th), 270 passing (107th) for a total of 486 (114th), but that doesn’t begin to show their ineptness. In a truly “WTF stat,” Tulsa is either dead last or next to last in long scrimmage plays allowed as they’ve allowed opponents to gain 30-plus yards 38 times (127th), 40-plus yards 23 times (127th), 50-plus yards 20 times (128th), 60-plus yards 13 times (128th), 70-plus yards 7 times (128th), 80-plus yards 3 times (tied with 3 other teams for 125th), and one play of 90-plus yards an outstanding one time (tied with 16 other teams for 113th). Of course the unfortunate part is that Bush’s offense ranks near or below the 100’s in plays of 20 through 60-plus yards and is 1 of 33 teams to not have a play of over 70 yards as they are not a big play quick strike offense.
Quarter back Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.) needs to learn to throw the ball away if his first or second read isn’t open instead of always relying on his athleticism in avoiding the pass rush. Of course he was thrown into the fray four and a half games ago and almost pulled out an improbable win against UCF and will learn with more reps. For the season he’s completing nearly 70-percent of his passes (100-for-149), mainly on short quick throws such as bubble screens, dump off or swing passes, for 914 yards. He has 6 TDs but 5 interceptions, 4 which came against Tulane as he only threw one in his first 99 attempts. I’d also like to see more speed option or read option elements added to their packages, stressing defenses horizontally along the edge which in turn, would force opposing defensive coordinators to keep a spy on Ward, opening up the inside running lanes for backs Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.). For the season both Farrow and Jackson average more than 5.2 yards per carry with Farrow leading with 570 total rushing yards while Jackson has 419. Both have scored 5 rushing TDs so far this season. Behind any good running game is a good offensive line, and while the Coogs O-line has improved dramatically from the beginning of the season they still have a lot of room to improve. 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 side and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.) on the right has opened up lanes in their inside and out zone rush schemes.
The Coogs O-line will have their hands full against a Tulsa front-7 that fires off the ball quickly, especially their two interior tackles; Derrick Luetjen (6’3, 285, Jr.) and Jerry Uwaezuoke (6’3, 295, So.) whom have 5 and 4 tackles-for- loss respectively, as early penetration leads to forcing inside runs to the edge into the waiting arms of the pass rush specialist along the weakside defensive end spot; Derrick Alexander (6’2, 270, Jr.). Chris Hummingbird (6’2, 265, Jr.) starts at the strongside end spot and has 7 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks while Alexander leads the D with 9.5 TFL along with 6 sacks.
Filling the gaps to meet the UH running backs will be Tulsa linebackers Donnell Hawkins (6’1, 220, Sr.) at the Mike LB spot, Jake Sizelove (6’0, 217, Jr.) at the Will and Craig Suits (6’0, 220, R-Fr.) at the Cane spot (which is a hybrid linebacker-safety). Hawkins, who has only played in 3 games this season accumulating 18 tackles, is replacing their leading tackler, Trent Martin (6’2, 235, So.) who’s also battling leg injuries and has an unknown status as of this writing. Suits is tied with Martin for second on the defense with 64 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and 4 pass breakups. Sizelove is a true sideline-to-sideline athlete as he’s all over the field and has 45 tackles, including 4 for loss and an interception on the season.
As mentioned earlier in the “WTF stat,” Tulsa has allowed an inordinate amount of big plays this season mainly due to the youth and size of their secondary. While their safeties, DeMarco Nelson (6’0, 195, Sr.) and Michael Mudoh (5’10, 200, Jr.) have decent size for their positions, the cornerbacks do not. Injuries have also played a part as a rotation of corners have started at least 2 games this season; Dwight Dobbins (5’9, 180, Sr.), Darrell Williams (5’10, 193, Jr.), Kerwin Thomas (5’10, 160, R-Fr.), Will Barrow (5’9, 170, So.) and Austin McDaniel (5’11, 192, So.). McDaniel leads the way with 5 pass breakups while only he and Thomas have interceptions. Their 7 total interceptions rank them 90th in the nation as well. Most of the time the corners are in the right spot to make the tackle, they just don’t have the size to pull their man down or have the height to out leap receivers on jump balls. Nelson and Mudoh will try to help cover this weakness as they will be patrolling the middle of the field, especially on any crossing routes. Nelson is the tone setter for the defense as he’ll be starting in his 50th career game Saturday and leads the team with 45 solo tackles while adding 2 fumble recoveries and an interception. Mudoh leads the defense with 95 total tackles from his safety-linebacker ‘Bandit’ hybrid spot and also has 2 picks and a fumble recovery as well.
Can the Cougars wide receiver core take advantage of the smaller Golden Hurricane secondary? While Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) and Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) aren’t any particularly bigger than Tulsa’s corners from their respective inside and outside receiver spots, Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) and Markeith Ambles (6’2, 200, Sr.) are. It will be Bush’s job to get them in positions to get the ball whether they be on fades, comebacks, deep posts (which have been rare this season) or my favorite route – the quick slant over the middle. This route only works if the back end is sucked up in play-action however. Greenberry leads the crew with 596 yards on 50 receptions and 4 TDs while Ambles is second with 297, 22 and 2 respectively. Ayers and Beadle are next with 21 and 17 receptions for 211 and 144 yards respectively. Many of Beadle’s receptions have come on various tunnel or bubble screens while Ayers has been the recipient of the speed sweep touch pass. On both routes the blocking by their fellow wide receivers needs to improve if they want to gain sufficient YAC (yards after the catch) yardage. One surprise least week was the emergence of Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Fr.), another bigger receiver who may be targeted more, as he caught 6 balls for 61 yards, many on the near game winning drive which saw the Coogs fall just short of tying the game up with under a minute to play against Tulane. Jackson (127 yards on 17 receptions) and Farrow (82, 16) also need to be used more in the passing game, whether it be on short swing passes that act as medium yard run plays or deeper wheel routes in which they would usually be covered by a slower linebacker or safety.
Neither team has remarkable special teams play as Tulsa ranks 75th or lower in kickoff returns (20.1 yard average ranking them 76th) and in punt return average (6.7 per ranking them 84th), while the Coogs allow opposing kick returners an average of 21.9 yards per return (89th). The Coogs do allow only 3.9 yards per punt return though which ranks them 21st, mainly thanks to coverage specialist Earl Foster (6’0, 192, Jr.) and the improved punting of Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Jr.). While still only averaging 39.4 yards per punt, 9 of Piper’s 30 punts have been pinned opponent’s inside their own 20-yard line while 12 have been fair caught with 4 having been over 50 yards, all of which gives Foster and the rest of the punt coverage units’ time to get down field to make the tackle. Meanwhile Tulsa’s punt coverage unit allows 7.6 yards per return (63rd) even though their punter, Dalton Parks (6’3, 202, So.) is averaging 41.9 yards per punt while pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line 20 times and forcing 22 fair catches. Tulsa’s saving grace is their kickoff coverage unit which allows only 16.8 yards per return, ranking them 9th nationally. This is not good against a Coogs kickoff return unit that averages only 17.7 yards per return, which is 122nd, behind Ayers paltry 18 yards per return. He did return a punt last week 16 yards to boost his average to 7.3 per (22 yards on 3 returns). For Tulsa, Brewer averages 22 yards per kickoff and Floyd 5.3 yards per punt return. If the game comes down to a battle of field goal kickers put your money on the Coogs. Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) has connected on 14 of 18 attempts while Tulsa’s Carl Salazar (5’8, 172, Sr.) has missed four attempts from beyond 30 yards out, while connecting on 11 of 16 total.
Keys to the game
As mentioned earlier, Tulsa moves the ball between the 20s at a decent rate; it’s crossing the goal line they have problems with as they’ve scored TDs on only 19 of 39 trips inside the redzone, which ranks them 109th nationally. The Coogs on the other hand, allow opponents to cross the goal line only 57-percent of the time (16 of 28), ranking them 46th. Houston meanwhile ranks 108th offensively in redzone conversions at 49-percent (20 for 41), while Tulsa has allowed opponents to score 7s an astounding 70-percent of the time (28 for 40), 115th nationally, so once both teams cross the 20-yard line look for the battle of the weak versus the meek. Turnover margin will also be key as the Coogs continue to force turnovers at a nice rate as their plus-6 mark has them 24th nationally compared to Tulsa’s ranking of 98th, with a minus-4. If the Coogs can overcome their usual amount of self-inflicted errors such as dropped passes and penalties, it should be easy riding but if we’ve learned one thing this season it’s that there’s no such thing as easy when concerning these Cougars.
The following seniors are playing their final home game on Saturday; Markeith Ambles (WR), Jamal Baker (DL), Wayne Beadle (WR), Eric Braswell (DL), Billy Cosh (QB), Jeremiah Farley (DL), Vincent Hall (DL), Rowdy Harper (OL), Trevor Harris (DL) , Randall Hollimon (RB), Derrick Mathews (LB), Joey Mbu (DL), Efrem Oliphant (LB), Bryce Redman (OL), Shane Ros (WR), Daniel Spencer (WR), Gavin Stansbury (DL), Turon Walker (DB) and Jon Witten (LB).