The Coogs deferred to begin the game putting new coordinator Todd Orlando’s defense out on the field first. Though the numbers may not suggest, 341 yards on 59 total plays in 29 minutes, 6 seconds of possession time, the effort was what impressed Herman as the head coach was quoted after the game (via uhcougars.com), “The key to great defense really at the end of the day is swarming to the football, playing with a fanatical effort and very good tackling. We have all of those things on our defense. We have very passionate guys, and it starts not just from the leaders in terms of coaches. I have the finest defensive staff in America: Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar, Oscar Giles and Jason Washington, but I have two of the finest captains on defensive in Elandon Roberts and Adrian McDonald. They bring that kind of energy, that kind of juice. Regardless of score, regardless of practice period - it could be practice (number) 12 of training camp, nine hundred degrees, and those two guys are out there flying around, flying to the ball and playing with fanatical effort. When you do that on defense, you are going to have a chance to be successful. We certainly can do that.”
While 341 yards allowed may not sound spectacular you have to take into effect the debut of a new aggressive defensive system. In Orlando’s 3-4 scheme he’s going to blitz early, and often, which is exactly what he did Saturday night as he had blitzes sent from every conceivable angle against the Golden Eagles. On their very first possession he had his unit set the tone, having both McDonald and fellow safety Trevon Stewart blitz from deep in the secondary, causing ‘throw aways’ by Tennessee Tech’s quarterback leading to a ‘3&out.’ In fact, almost half of the Golden Eagles possessions ended up being ‘3&out.’
Only as the game got out of hand late with Orlando subbing in younger players heavily did the opponent gain many of their yards; 180 of their 341 total coming in their final 2 possessions in which they scored touchdowns. Breaking it down further, out of those total yards, 194 of those yards came on just 3 plays including 2 TD passes of over 70 yards and a 46 yard completion. These broken plays were due to breakdowns in communication in the secondary. On the first Golden Eagles score, true freshman safety Michael Eke had his eyes in the backfield on a play-action fake, allowing a receiver to cross in front of him deep and scurrying 40-plus yards down field before being taken down. The two 70-plus yard TD passes were results of miscommunications between members of the secondary including Stewart, McDonald, Khalil Williams, corner Howard Wilson, safety Garrett Davis and linebacker Emeke Egbule, with the latter four being either redshirt or true freshman. These busted coverages will no doubt become “learning material” for Orlando come game film review with his unit. “A-Mac” (McDonald) and “World Wide” (Stewart) led the way for the secondary with 6 and 5 tackles respectively. McDonald also added an interception late as both Orlando had both safeties playing in the box constantly all night long. Lee Hightower only had 1 tackle but was also used on delayed bitzes more than a few times from his new deep single high safety spot. Corner backs William Jackson, Brandon Wilson and Tyler White were in man coverage most of the night, but even being isolated “on islands” stopped them from blitzing in Orlando’s aggressive schemes as Wilson added 2 TFL with Jackson and H. Wilson adding pass breakups downfield.
As with any defense, the effort up front is what usually leads the way with Saturday night’s game being no different. The Coogs front 7 dominated the line of scrimmage, allowing only 29 yards rushing on 33 attempts while pressuring Golden Eagle QBs all night constantly. The starting defensive line of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux caused havoc up front penetrating the Golden Eagles offensive line too many times to count, allowing the linebackers to swoop in for tackles-for-loss (8 total) by the linebacking core. Malveaux used his 6-foot-6 inch frame to leverage his way into 3 tackles and 2 QB pressures. Reserve Nick Thurman added 2 tackles along with Singleton’s. Chauntez Jackson and true freshman Kameron Eloph also made the official stat book with a tackle each and a pressure by Eloph as this may be the main unit that’s rotated in and out during close games this season. Melvin Holland and Zach Vaughn received limited snaps but did not record a tackle.
As with any 3-4 scheme, the linebackers will be at the center of attention as this was no doubt the case Saturday night as starting linebackers Elandon Roberts on the inside and Steven Taylor, from his strong side outside spot, led the way with 9 and 7 tackles respectively. Taylor played free flowing and fast to the ball adding 3 tackles-for-loss (to Roberts 2) and a sack. Tyus Bowser added a sack and a TFL from his rush weak outside spot but will have to cause much more commotion if the Coogs hope to win against opponents who aren’t outmatched talent wise later on this season. Surprisingly, last season’s true freshman sensation Mathew Adams didn’t make an impact Saturday night as he didn’t even register a single tackle. Adams wasn’t even listed as a starter as Orlando instead opted to start Williams in a nickel role in a base 3-3-5 alignment. Look for the super speedy Adams to make an impact starting next week against a physically imposing Louisville squad.
Offensively, Greg Ward Jr. while not playing a spectacular game, played solid as he completed 21-of-28 passes for 275 yards with a TD. The speedy Ward also added 107 yards on 13 carries and 2 more scores on the ground through three plus quarters of play before being relieved by Adam Schultz who added 80 yards on 6-of-10 completions himself and a score on the ground on an 1-yard scamper on a QB keeper on 4th & inches late in the game. The beauty of coordinator Major Applewhite’s philosophy is that it’s based off of power that’s disguised by spread looks. Even in 3-wide receiver sets, Applewhite often has either a guard pulling or uses either a running back or tight end as a lead blocker if he calls a QB run. While Ward missed a few shots downfield, the scheme itself was impressive as receivers found themselves open all night long with many coming off of play-action. Motioning receivers across the formation and the use of the swing pass in order to get players the ball out in space is also a key in Applewhite’s scheme as it leads to the YAC (yards after the catch) yardage that makes any QB look good on paper. And despite Herman’s contrary comments last week, I’m sure he had Applewhite scale back much of his game plan against an inferior Golden Eagles squad in anticipation of next week’s matchup against the Cardinals.
The disappointing part of the game was the inside game of running back Kenneth Farrow as he only gained 49 yards on just 11 carries, with16 of those yards coming on one run. Applewhite has talented backups to choose from however with Ryan Jackson adding 28 yards on 7 carries (with a score) and Javin Webb (39 yards on 5 carries with 2 scores). Herman will often use his receivers in the run game as well with various speed sweeps as Demarcus Ayers added 44 yards on just 4 carries and true freshman Tyreik Gray added 2 yards on a carry. The Coogs rushed for 272 yards on 44 total carries for a tidy 6.2 yards per carry average which is exactly what Herman bases his offense on; a physical downhill run game.
What was thought to be a thin wide receiver core may turn out to be a deeper unit than many, myself included, anticipated with a few surprises Saturday night, mainly being that of Kyle Postma who had 82 yards receiving on only 4 catches including an athletic 29 yard run for a TD in the third quarter. Postma showed nice route running ability for being a QB once training camp began in August. The aforementioned Ayers will be the featured Coogs receiver this year as the junior had 121 yards on 10 receptions, many coming on swing passes as he either started or motioned into the backfield. Chance Allen will be the deep threat, though Ward missed him on at least two play action deep posts, accumulating 56 yards on 3 catches. Sophomore Steven Dunbar will be the intermediary possession receiver though he did not catch a pass Saturday night. Linell Bonner and Isaiah Johnson also added 28 yards on their 3 combined catches with Gray contributing 24 on 2 receptions. Another nice surprise was the use of Tyler McCloskey as the newly minted tight end showed surprising athletic ability with 19 yards on 2 receptions but like Postma, also showed nice route running ability down field. McCloskey will be a key to the offense not only with his run and pass blocking ability but how he can be used on third downs on play-action passing situations. The receivers played a nice game overall, especially with their blocking downfield on the many screen passes Applewhite called.
Probably the most impressive aspect of Saturday night’s offense was the time the offensive line gave Ward in the pocket. The starting line of Marcus Oliver, Ben Dew, Colton Freeman, Carter Wall and Alex Cooper from left to right tackle gave Ward plenty of time to go through his progressions. Damian Parris and Zach Johnson were the two main reserves along the line. Probably the most disappointing aspect of the offense was the fumbling issues between Ward and Freeman, but as Herman stated after the game; it was the redshirt freshman’s first game and a wet slippery ball along with first game jitters also helped to contribute as a few of the receivers also let the ball slip from their grasps. The inside running blocking will also need to improve against a much more physically imposing Louisville opponent next week.
One major area I look for marked improvement from is the special teams, and coordinator Jason Washington had to be happy with his unit Saturday night, especially his return units. After averaging an anemic 5 yards per punt return last season, Ayers returned 3 punts for 25 yards, including a long of 22. He would have added a beautiful 75-yarder for a score as he zigged in and out of traffic but it was called back because of an illegal block. Kickoff returns were split between Brandon Wilson and Ryan Jackson with the former returning 3 kicks for 78 yards with a long of 45, and the latter a lone return for 21 yards. After averaging over 25 yards per return two seasons ago, it looks as if Ayers will only be returning punts this season to lessen the load work wise. Logan Piper continued his stellar play from last season as he boomed 4 punts for a 45.2 yard average, including having one downed inside the 20-yard line and adding a long of 56 yards. The Golden Eagles returned two of those punts for only three yards. Kicker Kyle Bullard continued his consistent play as he connected on his only field goal attempt, a 26-yarder and Ty Cummings had 4 touchbacks on 9 total kickoffs, though he did kick one out of bounds and the return unit allowed a 36 yarder.
Overall it was a very solid if not spectacular performance by the team in Herman’s debut. To beat Louisville however (I’ll have my game preview published by mid-week), the run game will have to play better and the team can NOT make the same self-inflicted errors it did Saturday night, particularly the fumbles and penalties (9 for 59 yards). As we do too many times in life however, we tend to overlook the good and dwell on the bad too often while not enjoying the moment. This is a perspective Herman is trying his hardest not to allow happen however, “We’ve been working nine months for this. So the first win was extremely gratifying. It was neat to see the smiles on the faces of all the guys that have put in the time, effort, energy, blood, sweat and tears to get to this point. It was extremely gratifying.”