2015 Louisville Post Game Analysis

In a game marked by seven lead changes, including five in the second half, your Houston Cougars persevered over the heavily ranked Louisville Cardinals to win 34-31 before a packed house at Papa John’s Stadium Saturday afternoon. In fact it was the first win for the Cougars over a Power 5 conference school opponent and biggest point spread upset since Sept. 12, 2009 when they beat Oklahoma State as a 16 point dog. The Cardinals were at a 13.5-point favorite Saturday.

Head coach Tom Herman on the victory and his team’s march to national relevancy in his post-game press conference (via uhcougars.com), “To talk about national relevance, that's for the nation to decide. Not for me. That would be unfair for me to comment on it. We're a really good football team on the road, that was a heck of a crowd they got there, they're loud and it was a very up and down ball game. What a team win. If there was a definition of a team win, that would be it. Offensive, defensive, and special teams always had their ups and downs but never at the same time. We always found a way to pick each unit up."

With so much to analyze, where should we start first? Probably on the stellar play of the offense and, quarterback Greg Ward Jr. in particular. The junior signal caller completed 23-of-33 passes for 236 yards with 3 scores and an interception. His final scoring strike was a beautifully thrown 15-yard pass on a corner route to the back of the endzone to receiver Demarcus Ayers  in a play in which he checked at the line of scrimmage based on the coverage he saw (zero coverage, or man across the board). Herman on Ward’s final pass, “we had seen them in a bear defense and we had talked about it on the sideline that if they had shown us bear, we were awful in the red zone up until that point. And so, credit to the offensive coaches for making some adjustments throughout the game. So we told him the next time we were down there if we saw a bear cover zero, to get to that play and Greg did and him and Demarcus and the offensive line executed great."

Most of Ward’s better throws came off of roll outs designed by offensive coordinator Major Applewhite as it’s obvious that this is where Ward is at his best. If the route is not there he’ll simply pull the ball down and take off as he also added 98 yards on the ground on 21 carries. Applewhite does a fantastic job on taking advantage of Ward’s allusiveness, whether it be QB keepers on draws, sweeps, or designed off the zone read. On Ward’s 22-yard TD pass to receiver Linell Bonner, he rolled out to his left and threw across his body to give the Coogs a 27-24 lead early in the 4th. In fact out of his 10 incompletions, only two throws really stood out as bad; the first being when Ward tried throwing a deep post to Chance Allen which ended up being an intercepted by a Louisville safety whom he did not see shadowing the former Oregon transfer. The other, a pass in which he just overthrew Bonner on a slant at the Cardinals 9-yard line on 3rd down, which led to a missed field goal.

Applewhite is doing a nice overall job in play calling, though the sample size is small as in just two games, as the offense has been balanced with the run and pass ratio (102 rushes, 72 passes). We’ll find out more about Applewhite and Herman’s philosophy as the season progresses and how serious they are about a tough physical inside run game being the cornerstone of the offense.

The offensive line blocked well in the run game as Kenneth Farrow rushed for 109 yards on 27 carries a week after rushing for only 49 yards against an FCS foe, but they still haven’t given Ward a clean pocket long enough to set up for the deep ball. An offense can survive off of quick screen after quick screen after quick screen only so long before opposing defenses figure it out. The first year play caller has also used Ayers very effectively, moving him all over the field via motion, while often lining him up in the backfield so Ward can either toss him quick swing passes or even hand the ball off on sweeps. This is also an effective use of the diminutive receiver so he won’t get jammed at the line of scrimmage against bigger corners. Against the Cardinals, Ayers once again led the way with 8 receptions for 53 yards (and the aforementioned game winning score). Through two games he has 18 catches for 174 yards with another 43 yards on 7 carries (for a tidy 6.1 yards per carry, though he was held to 4 yards on 3 carries against the speedy Louisville defense). Unlike in the Tennessee Tech game, the other receivers actually stepped up against Louisville as three receivers had between 50 and 55 yards. Steven Dunbar’s first catch of the season came on the Coogs first possession of the game, which ended up in a TD as he caught a 29-yarder while totaling 54 yards on 4 receptions. Allen added 51 on 4, Isaiah Johnson caught 3 balls for 19 yards and Kyle Postma added a reception for 14 yards. Bonner caught 2 passes for 35 yards including the 22 yard strike from Ward coming off a scramble drill. Though tight end Tyler McCloskey played, he did not start as Herman wanted to spread the Cards out as he stated after the game, “we wanted to play in 10 personnel which is no tight end and we felt like that gave us the best opportunity. As good as they were up front to kind of spread them out a little bit and not play so much football in a phone booth.”

The offensive line of Marcus Oliver, Ben Dew, Colton Freeman, Colton Freeman and Alex Cooper blew the Cardinals defensive line off the ball on inside zone plays enough to allow Farrow to establish himself in the power run game. Well, with the exception of Cardinals defensive end Sheldon Rankins anyway, who was all over the field disrupting the Coogs offense. When a defensive lineman makes a tackle down the field on a receiver off a screen pass there isn’t much an offensive lineman can do though. As stated earlier though they still need to do a better job at creating a pocket for Ward. It also looks like Javin Webb is splitting time with Ryan Jackson for second team running back reps as they combined for 25 yards on 5 carries. One aspect that puzzles me about Applewhite’s play calling is going away from the power game in the red zone. Two times it could have cost the Coogs 7 points as option pitches and sweeps won’t cut it when the defense is condensed in such a small space (inside the 10-yard line). Running east-west against a speedy, athletic defense such as that of the Cards only helps them out. As they say, sometimes the easiest way from point-A to point-B is a straight line, as in running downhill.

Defensively, the “3rd Ward D” continues to force turnovers as the Cards committed four total; two interceptions and fumbles each. The turnovers were critical on a day in which Louisville generated 395 yards of total offense and scored TDs on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter and looked to be gathering steam until Ward took the team on his back. Safety Trevon Stewart was the player of the game as he had an interception (which he returned for 58 yards in the third quarter which lead to a field goal), a fumble recovery, a sack and two tackles-for-loss among his six total tackles. His “Jack Boyz” partner, and fellow safety Adrian McDonald, also intercepted a pass which was his 15th career Int (one more and he ties the school record) along with seven tackles.

The problem defensively hasn’t been the front seven, which held the Cards to only 70 net yards, and through two games is only allowing an average of 50 per game (ranking them 10th nationally). The problem has surprisingly been a lack of communication on the back end which has led to several huge plays by opponents in the passing game. This comes from a lack of a pass rush from the front four. While the front seven of Tomme Mark, Nick Thurman, B.J. Singleton, Cameron Malveaux (along the front three), and Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor the two tackling machines at linebacker, have all done a stellar job of stopping the run, they simply haven’t been able to muster up much of a pass rush early in the season. This in turn has caused defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to dial up one too many zone blitzes for my liking. In a zone blitz the pressure comes from linebackers or safeties while the defensive linemen drop back into their various areas or zones on the field.

A good opposing offensive coordinator will take advantage of these matchups if his offensive line can give the QB enough time to get the ball out of his hands, which is exactly what happened Saturday when Louisville’s tight end caught 6 passes for 103 yards, many when he was lost in coverage over the intermediary portions of the field or when he was covered by outside linebacker Tyus Bowser. The athletic rush-backer had a sack and a TFL, but simply isn’t fast enough to cover tight ends or running backs down the field. Roberts added 12 tackles including 2 for loss and really seems to be coming into his own after transferring from Morgan State before last season. The other linebacker, Mathew Adams, left the game with a knee injury early in the first quarter and was sorely missed as his innate ability to always be where the ball is can’t be taught. Taylor added five tackles and his 12 through two games is tied for second with Stewart and McDonald, behind Robert’s 21 total. Containment on Louisville’s speedy QB was also lost too frequently, allowing the true freshman, Lamar Jackson, to rush outside for major yardage.

The secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense heading into the season, but so far that hasn’t been the case as Brandon Wilson and William Jackson have been burned often, especially when dropping back in zone coverage. They’ve also lost communication countless times with their safeties, whether it be Stewart and McDonald or Lee Hightower, Howard Wilson, or Khalil Williams (who came inches away from an interception only to have the ball whiz by his finger tips for a TD late in the second quarter). This lack of communication as to who picks up a receiver when he passes from zone to zone must be cleaned up as the season progresses and will be addressed during the off-week I’m sure.

Special teams was a mixed bag. Wilson returned 4 kickoffs for 148 yards including a 100-yard TD, which was a bad decision to return as he was pinned in the right corner of the endzone. If not for a bad tackle attempt he would be been brought down at the 10-yard line which would have been apropos as his other three returns only averaged 16 yards. No other kickoffs or punts were returned for the Coogs while the Cards only averaged 19.2 yards on 5 kick returns, but did have a 24 yard punt return. Kicker Kyle Bullard shanked an easy 26-yarder which could have cost the team the game. He also missed a much more difficult 48-yarder earlier in the game but that’s much more understandable. The usually reliable kicker connected on 41 and 21 yard attempts at least. Punter Logan Piper boomed a 56-yard punt and averaged 45 yards on 3 total. Piper needs to improve on his arm strength if Applewhite is to call on any more passes on fake punt calls though (I say that jokingly). One call that was unfortunate was Wilson getting ejected for a targeting call on a punt return attempt when the Louisville returner lowered himself at the last second, making it impossible for Wilson not to come in contact with his facemask, earning an automatic ejection.

In all, despite all the mistakes made in all three phases of the game the fact that the team persevered and overcame adversity has been what Herman and his staff have been preaching about from day one, "Again, and this is certainly not to sound coy, but we train that way. That's how we train and we've trained that way for nine months. We train that way for moments like this. That's just the culture of our program, is to battle adversity, respond when adversity hits very mindfully and on purpose, with really good thoughts and actions, and not to panic and not to try to do anything outside of ourselves. We talk all the time about going back to our fundamentals when things get tough. Effort and fundamentals are the easiest way to battle adversity. It's not freaking out. It's not trying to make the superhuman play. It's going back to your fundamentals and giving a superior level of effort. Hats off to our strength staff and his (Yancy McKnight) crew, prepared us physically and mentally for this moment. He's our culture coach. He's around our guys a lot more than I am, a lot more than our assistant coaches are. He's in total alignment with what we believe in as a football program and instills that culture in our guys on a daily basis. And so, I'm not trying to make it sound easy. It certainly was not easy. It was in fact extremely, extremely hard. But, that's why we train so hard and that's why we push our guys so hard, is for moments like this."

The Coogs have off this week before returning to TDECU September the 26th as they host the Texas State Bobcats.


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