Game 11 Preview; SMU

Your bowl eligible Houston Cougars travel northward to Dallas for a Texas showdown with the SMU Mustangs this Friday, November the 28th. Game time at Gerald J. Ford Stadium is set for 11AM (CST) and will be broadcast nationally on the CBS Sports Network.

The Ponies are the only winless team in the nation (0-10 and 0-6 in the American), losing 12 straight overall and not having won in 370 calendar days come kickoff. Their last victory came on November the 23rd of 2013 at South Florida. Included in the current streak came a 34-0 shutout to the Coogs last ‘Black Friday’ which was, looking back, a telling foreshadowing of things to come this season. In short, the Mustangs have been a train wreck this year, so much so that seventh year head coach, June Jones, resigned after two games (losing at Baylor and North Texas by a combined 88-6), for “personal reasons.” Seventh year Defensive coordinator Tom Mason was named interim head coach on September the 8th and quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison was named co-offensive coordinator along with receivers coach, and former Coog great, Jason Phillips.

The Mustangs rank in the 120’s nationally in 11 categories including points scored and allowed per game at 9.7 and 44.1 respectively, placing them dead last in both (128th). They’re also last in total yards allowed (524.4 yards per game), and second to last in total offensive yards (258.3). They allow 229.8 yards rushing (119th), 294.6 passing (124th), rush for only 84.9 offensively (124th), and pass for 173.4 (110th). As is the case with such inept offensive numbers, one could guess they have major instability with their QB. After getting beat out by Johnny ‘Football’ and Jamiel Flowers, Matt Davis (6’0, 214, So-Tr.) left for Tyler JC two seasons ago before transferring to ‘The Hilltop’ during the spring. The Houston (Klein Forest) product was beat out by Neal Burcham, who had more experience in the Run-and-shoot system, starting two games last season, including the loss to Houston. Unfortunately Burcham was lost for the season due to an elbow injury after just the second game of the season, in which he completed 27-for-48 passes for 3.3 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Next up was redshirt freshman Kolney Cassel (6’2, 192), who started their third game against Texas A&M. With the redshirt freshman being ineffective as a drop back QB with an offensive line giving up sacks in record numbers (43 ranking them 127th), it was former walk-on Garrett Kristich’s (6’3, 199, Jr.) turn in the QB carousel as he started the next 4 games before Mason finally named Davis the starter 3 games ago against Tulsa. For the season Cassel has completed 15-of-36 passes for 156 yards with a pick while Kristich has completed 99-for-181 for 865 yards with 7 picks to only 2 TDs.

According to the head coach, Davis just wasn’t ready from a mental standpoint to start the season. With all the mental and physical practice reps, all Davis accomplished in his debut against Tulsa was to complete 21-of-32 passes for 212 yards with a TD and rush for a season high 181 yards (the most yards ever by an SMU QB) on 28 carries and 2 TDs. In fact, Davis leads the team in rushing yards with 352, on 66 carries, as the abilities of the dual-threat QB has had Morrison adding some read-option and speed option elements to their other QB run game packages such as draws and keepers. With Davis taking over, SMU’s offense has morphed into more of a spread scheme from the R-n-S, in which the QBs and wide receivers had to be on the same page reading defensive secondary cover schemes the same. Davis has completed 61 of his 104 passes for 565 yards with 2 TD with 4 interceptions. As athletic as he is, Davis has a strong arm and will test the Coogs secondary deep on more than just an occasion. Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs will have his hands full as Davis isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and take a shot. Davis’s problem, as with all young QBs, is learning to go through his progressions if his first option isn’t available, instead of pulling the ball down to run. Last week in a 53-7 loss at UCF, Morrison took an ineffective Davis out of the game late for Kristich, though he’s still listed as the starter in the latest Mustang 2-deep depth chart.

Gibbs “Third Ward Defense” is 13th nationally allowing only 18.7 points per game, but has allowed 31 and 28 to Tulane and Tulsa respectively over their past two games while having been gashed in the run game to the tune of 282 yards. For the season they allow 140.6 yards rushing per game (35th), and 188.6 passing (19th) for 329.2 total (16th). SMU’s running backs, Prescott Line (6’0, 228, So.) and K.C. Nlemchi (6’0, 225, Jr.), haven’t been able to establish much of an inside run game this season as Line averages a meager 2.9 yards per rush (166 yards on 56 carries) with 2 TDs, while Nlemchi is only marginally better at 3.4 ypr (137 yards on 41 carries). Neither Line nor Nlemchi have much burst along the edge as they are both more straight-line power runners. Line’s best attribute is probably his blocking in pass protection as much of the problem with the Ponies running game has been with their offensive line, which has had 4 different starting combinations this season thus far. Left tackle Chauncey Briggs (6’5, 300, So.) leads the line that, as previously mentioned, has surrendered 43 sacks this season, with 16 starts in his first two seasons. Guards Daniel McCarty (6’4, 277, So.) on the left and Evan Brown (6’2, 309, Fr.) on the right are both first year starters who have started a combined 12 games this season, mainly due to injuries and inconsistency. Kris Weeks (6’5, 310, Jr.) is a second year starter at right tackle and center Taylor Lasecki (6’3, 300, Jr.) is in his third. Highlighting their inexperience, the Ponies line entered the season tied for 17th nationally with only 45 combined starts. They’ll be going up against a Cougars defensive line that seems to be getting beat at the point of attack more and more as the season has endured; starting defensive tackles Joey Mbu (6’1, 310, Sr.) and Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.), with B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) in reserve. On the edge Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) has really improved his play from Gibbs stand-up ‘rush backer’ position opposite 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. Harris leads the line with 5 tackles-for-loss followed by 4.5 for Mbu and Farley each, while Stansbury and Eiland lead with 32 and 27 tackles respectively. Mbu leads the down linemen with 2.5 sacks.

Although Sam and Will (strong and weakside) linebackers Steven Taylor (6’0, 220, So.) and Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) have really stepped up their game since Mike (middle) linebacker, and defensive captain, Derrick Mathews was lost for the season with a torn ACL five games ago, the defense has continually been gashed up the gut over the past two games, as the fatigue is obvious in losing a leader who was adept at diagnosing plays quickly, shooting the gaps, shedding linemen and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Without Mathews, Gibbs has his unit go more into 4-2-5 looks with Oliphant moving to the middle in their nickel and sub packages. Oliphant had 16 tackles as he swarmed the Golden Hurricane last week to add to his season total which sits at 112, including 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks. When dropping back in coverage he has the reflexes and smarts to close down passing lanes as his 2 interceptions and 5 passes defended suggests. The hard hitting senior also has forced 2 fumbles and recovered one this season as well. Taylor is second on the defense with 59 total tackles, including 6 for loss to add to 2 sacks, forces fumbled, passes defended and a fumble recovery.

In their passing game, the Ponies rely on a plethora of receivers led by Der’rikk Thompson (5’10, 186, Sr.), whom averages 16.5 yards per reception (512 yards on 31 receptions with a score). The other outside receiver is more of a possession receiver in Nate Halverson (5’10, 183, So.), whom only averages 9.7 ypr (165 yards on 17 receptions with a score). The two slot receivers are Darius Joseph (6’0, 190, Jr.) and Deion Sanders Jr. (5’7, 183, So.). Joseph leads the crew in receptions with 41 (for 247 yards and 2 scores) and TDs with 2, while “Little Prime” is quick enough to outrun angles of opposing potential tacklers as he has 152 yards on 17 receptions. A receiver to keep an eye on is transfer Chris Hipps (6’4, 228, Sr.) Although the transfer from the Duke Lacrosse team doesn’t have a reception yet this season, he’s said to have the athletic ability and definitely has the size to make a difference on either intermediate or deep routes. Another outside receiver that’s a playmaker in their scheme is Stephen Nelson (6’0, 185, Sr.), as he’s third with 28 receptions for 200 yards. Lining up across from these receivers will be a unit otherwise known as the “Jack Boys,” who are glad to have their leader back in free safety Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.). A week after leaving early against Tulane and only registering a career low 1 tackle, ‘Word Wide’ had 9 tackles and an interception last week against Tulsa. Look for the Ponies to take advantage of his less than stellar one-on-one cover skills against slot receivers, though the Mustangs don’t really have any huge bodied receivers that take advantage of smaller slot defensive backs like Stewart. Although he’s only sixth on the defense with 42 tackles, he’s second in both interceptions (3) and passes defended (7) as his aggressiveness is hit-or-miss which is what Gibbs both loves and wants him to improve on. This all-for-nothing ball hawking attitude permeates throughout the secondary, especially strong safety Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.) as he leads the D with 5 interceptions (for 145 return yards) and 3 fumble recoveries and is third with 55 total tackles. He, like Stewart, also has 7 passes defended as he quickly anticipates and cuts off routes when Gibbs has him play ‘center field’ in his single-high safety zone looks. Cornerback Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, Fr.), like Oliphant, also had best game as a Coog as he registered 15 sacks last week as the ‘nickel back’ and added an interception. As his playing time has increased he’s looked more impressive as he has 3 interceptions and 5 passes defended in limited playing time. William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) continues to be the ‘lock down’ corner as he leads the secondary with 9 passes defended to add to his 2 interceptions and fumble recovery. For maybe the first time this season there doesn’t appear to be an opposing receiver that the Coogs secondary doesn’t match up well with, from a height-weight mismatch standpoint.

Defensively, the Mustangs are a hybrid 3-4, 4-3 multiple front under Mason, who’s still the DC. With 9 freshman and sophomores on their 2-deep, you would think the mental part of the game would be the problem but from the 3 games I’ve watched scouting it doesn’t appear so. The coaching staff seems to have them in the right positions to make the plays, the athletes themselves just aren’t making them. These mistakes have rendered the defense ineffective as they allow 229.8 yards rushing (119th), 294.6 passing (124th), for a total of 524.4 yards allowed (128th). Their defensive front seems to be able to penetrate opposing offensive lines, but often to no avail as they seem to just miss the tackle-for-loss. Another noticeable trait is their size, or lack thereof, as defensive ends Mason Gentry (6’6, 250, Fr.), Zach Wood (6’3, 262, Jr.) and Zelt Minor (6’2, 276, So.) in reserve along with nose tackles Darrian Wright (6’1, 275, Sr.) and Andrew McCleneghen (6’5, 257, Jr.) average only 264 pounds. This would be ok if their linebacker core was big, but they’re not as Stephon Sanders (6’3, 250, Sr.) and Robert Seals (6’3, 230, Jr.) outside and inside backers Kevin Pope (5’11, 222, Sr.) and Jonathan Yenga (6’2, 220, Jr.) average only 230 pounds themselves. Pope is an ‘old school linebacker’ and is a defensive captain. He started the season as a running back and rushed for 103 yards on 35 carries through the first five games of the season. The sixth year senior has played the last four at their ‘Buck’ outside rush linebacker spot and led the defense with 36 tackles. He’s third in the linebacking core with 40 total tackles, with both Sanders and Yenga having 60 each. Seals has 39 tackles and the four each have a sack a piece. John Bordano (6’2, 230, Sr.) adds 31 tackles and is used to pressure the A-gaps as Mason loves to blitz with man and zone looks behind it. Mason will usually man-up on the boundary side and play zone on the field side of the hash.

This front-seven will be bucking heads against a Cougar O-line that averages almost 300 pounds; 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 established the run game early last week against Tulsa as they rushed for 244 yards.

For the season, Houston is averaging 166.3 rushing yards per game, ranking them 64th nationally, under coordinator Travis Bush, while passing for 220.8 (72nd) for 387.1 total yards (78th). The Coogs are also only scoring 28.6 points per game to rank 69th. This should be a good week to continue to crank up the running game as both Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218,Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) had 100-plus yard games as they really hit the holes hard and excelled well in between the tackles in Bush’s inside zone run scheme. Farrow’s tough between the tackles running gives him 686 rushing yards for the year on 127 carries for a 5.4 yards per carry average. He also now has crossed the goal line 9 times thanks to the career high 4 TDs last week. Jackson, meanwhile, has a not too shabby 522 yards on 94 carries for a 5.6 ypr and has 5 TDs on the season.

Once the run game has opened up, QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.) usually has a much easier go of it as the game is not placed solely on his shoulders as in his lone loss versus Tulane. After taking over for an ineffective John O’Korn five-and-half games ago, Ward has led the team to 4 victories in 5 games while completing over 70-percent of his passes. Over the past 4 games in which he’s been the starter from start to finish, the John Tyler product has completed 105 of his 144 passes for 1,017 yards, and has averaged 203.4 yards passing per game while passing for 7 TDs to 5 interceptions (4 of which came against Tulane). In that same span he’s rushed 62 times for 247 yards for a 4 yard per carry average. Eleven of the twenty-three sacks allowed by the O-line have come with Ward taking snaps as he’s been prone to run into a sack or two simply extending the pocket trying to make a play down field as offensive linemen are not trained to hold their blocks for more than a few seconds.

Fans will rarely get to see a surprise this late in the season as far as emerging players as most athletes have already emerged after months of off-season and summer workouts, not to mention the actual games. A wide receiver for the Coogs, however, has accomplished just this as Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Fr.) has stepped out of the shadows. Over the past game and previous fourth quarter versus Tulane, the true freshman has caught 12 passes for 208 yards, including 7 for 150 last week against Tulsa. His combination of raw power and speed make him a difficult matchup for any cornerback playing outside receiver (Z), as he’s taking the place of Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) who played sparingly last week because of an undisclosed injury. For the season, Dunbar has 16 receptions for 252 yards with his yards per catch a team leading 15.8, most of which are YAC yardage (yards after the catch) as he has the strength to overpower smaller corners and the speed to outrun bigger safeties. Ayers, for whatever reason, just hasn’t been able to establish himself as a big-play threat this season as his 10 yards per reception indicates (21 receptions for 211 yards). “Y” Slot receiver  Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) continues to have hot and cold games as last week he only caught 4 passes 21 yards a week after catching 11 for 130, a week after catching 3 passes for a single yard. Unfortunately Greenberry’s strength does not coincide with Ward’s; getting down field quickly. Ward flourishes with more possession receiver types who can run more fluid and precise routes, which Greenberry is still learning. Despite his inconsistencies, the talented former 5-star recruit leads the team with 54 receptions for 617 yards with 4 TDs. When slot receiver Daniel Spencer was lost for the season during practice the week of the Memphis game, outside receiver “X” Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) has taken over as Ward’s favorite target down field and overall number two receiver as he has 24 receptions for 331 yards (13.8 yards per reception) with 3 scores. Taking over for Spencer in the slot “H” has been Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.), who’s basically been nothing more than a stop-gap insertion into the lineup as he doesn’t have the speed to get down field, the physicality or route running skills nor the blocking ability for the various screen passes in Bush’s offense. For the season the senior, who’s recently been granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA for medical reasons, has 21 receptions for 173 yards. He does serve a purpose however as his sure hands allow easy short yard receptions which acts as an extended running play which puts the offense in medium to short yardage downs. Jackson and Farrow have been used sparingly in the passing game since Ward has taken over and have been overall ineffective on simple swing routes due to the receivers’ inabilities, as a whole, to block down field. To his credit Bush did have Ward try to hit Jackson on a ‘wheel route’ last week, with the pass too long. Both running backs have 17 receptions this season with Jackson reeling in 127 yards worth of passes to Farrow’s 102 with the former crossing the goal line twice and the latter once.

Mustang safeties Hayden Greenbauer (6’0, 212, Sr.), at strong, and Darrion Richardson (6’0, 196, So.), at free, are the Ponies two leading tacklers with 72 and 60 respectively with each having an interception. This obviously is not a good thing as most of their tackles come at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Greenbauer is a heady football player who knows how to read the gaps in the run game and always seems to be around the ball, much like the Coogs duo at safety, as he has 2 fumble recoveries amongst his 43 solo tackles (2 for loss). Richardson meanwhile, is ultra-athletic while possessing extreme closing speed that can shut down a route that had looked open at the beginning of a particular play. Look for Richardson to bait Ward into throwing an interception or two based on coverage and footwork. At corner the Ponies have two more Richardson’s; Horace (5’11, 197, So.) and J.R. (5’10, 177, Jr.), no relation. They both have 19 tackles and 2 passes defended in limited playing time due to injuries. One athlete to look out for is Shakiel Randolph (6’4, 210, Jr.) who’s listed at second string on their depth chart, yet he leads the defense with 9 passes defended and has an interception. A converted safety, Randolph has long arms, speed and the leaping ability that allows him to disrupt receivers. Overall the Ponies lack said size and speed in the secondary as they have only 4 interceptions total, ranking them 123rd nationally. The size and height advantage will once again go to the Cougars receivers over the Mustangs defensive backs, much like last week against Tulsa. The question is can the Coogs take advantage?

Special teams wise, the Mustangs return and coverage units rank 99th or lower; kickoff return – 18.7 yards per (112th), punt return – 2.2 yards per (125th), opposing kickoff  return average – 24.4 (120th), and opposing punt return average – 10.4 (99th). The Coogs are hardly any better with averages like 16.9 yards per kickoff return (125th), punt return – 5.9 (97th) and opposing kickoff returns – 22 (89th). Houston’s saving grace is their punt returns coverage unit as they only allow 4.7 yards per return (28th). Coogs punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) averages 39.4 yards per punt but has placed 10 of his 33 inside the opponents 20-yard line, forced 13 fair catches and boomed 4 punts more than 50 yards, which no doubt helps the coverage units get downfield, led by special teams captain Earl Foster (6’0, 192, Jr.). SMU punter Jackson Koonce (6’1, 167, Fr.) may be his team’s MVP as he averages 42.1 yards on an 60 total punts, or 6 per game. The true freshman forces opponents inside their own 20-yard line 12 times, forces 11 fair catches and has boomed 8 punts of more than 50 yards. Coogs kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) continues his steady kicking as he’s connected on 15-of-21 field goals including 6 out of 7 from 40 yards on out. Ponies kicker Cody Rademacher (5’10, 189, Sr.), on the other hand, has converted only 7 of his 13 attempts, including 3-for-9 from 30 yards on out. In the return game for the Ponies, Sanders averages only 20.3 yards on his 32 returns yet is showing improvement as he totaled 203 kick return yards last week at UCF, including a 64 yarder, so the Coogs kickoff coverage unit must be aware of the speedy fast son of the NFL Hall of Famer. Stewart averages 6.5 on 6 punt returns as the Ponies look to improve their field position in order to give their offense more of a spark. For the Coogs, with Ayers hurt, Jackson returned 3 kickoffs for only 38 yards with Dunbar adding only 1 for a meager 5 yards as the Coogs also continue to look to spark their return units. Ayers was well enough to return one punt, for negative-2 yards, adding to his season total of 20 yards on 4 returns.

Overall SMU is having an all-time horrible season. Mason and the coaching staff probably won’t be back next year (rumors say) yet the players are still playing for something; pride and evaluation by the next coaching staff. Game tape doesn’t lie. The next staff will know by summer practices who quit and who hadn’t, who has heart and who doesn’t. The fact that this is a rival game (w/ the Coogs leading 20 games to 18), along with the Ponies looking to send their seniors out on a winning note in the final home game of their careers should have the Coogs up for this game, of which head coach Tony Levine mentioned as much during his weekly media presser on Tuesday.

Keys to the game

For Houston the key is to take control of the game early by establishing the running game. Last week against Tulsa, the Coogs won the coin toss, chose to receive, and took the opening drive 78 yards down field over 10 plays, taking 5 minutes off the clock for the first TD of the game. Keep the chains and the clock moving seems to be Bush’s mantra as the offense has gradually crept up the rankings in time of possession as they currently rank 62nd, holding the ball for an even 30-minutes per game. This in turn helps the defense as they get more rest during the game. The Coogs need to crush the Ponies will early. Don’t give them any hope that they can win the game. The more SMU is in the game the more they’ll believe they can win. Of course the Ponies are used to playing from behind as the first time they’ve have had the lead in a game was at Tulsa, 8 games into the season. Their first half-time lead was against USF during their next game, in which they lost on a heart breaker (14-13) on a final second score by the Bulls on a TD reception that probably should have been called offensive pass interference. The Coogs have played down to their opponents too many times this season, but this is a different animal all together as youth is serving the day for the Ponies. SMU ranks tied for 17th in the NCAA with 25 total freshmen and sophomores on its 2 deep, and is tied for the 4th fewest seniors with eight. SMU also has the  5th fewest total seniors on its roster with 13 (stats acquired from SMU’s website via their game notes section).


The Cougars defense needs to play aggressively, yet with discipline, especially concerning the Ponies Rocket (inside) screens and other misdirection plays intended to take advantage of sometimes over-aggressive defensive units like the “Third Ward D.”  Gibbs needs to remind his athletes to “just do your job,” such as defensive linemen plugging their respective gaps, linebackers reading their keys or not over pursuing allowing cut back lanes in the run game. Third down will be key as well as SMU converts at only 31-percent, due mainly to incompletions on first downs that lead to many second, then third and long down and distances. In the Ponies few short yardage situations, the Coogs D need to keep an eye on Justin Lawler (6’4, 259), a reserve defensive end who also doubles as a tight end (ALA the Texans J.J. Watt), who caught a 3-yard pass for a TD against the Bulls.

And finally, as always, turnovers will no doubt be a determining factor in which team wins Friday afternoon. The Coogs are 13th nationally in turnover margin with at plus-9 while the Ponies are next to last (127th), with a MINUS-16 margin.

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