After somewhat of a slow start, leading only 14-7 after the first quarter, the Coogs started imposing their will in the trenches offensively. The newly minted offensive line of Marcus Oliver, Carter Wall, Colton Freeman, Alex Cooper and Zach Johnson from left to right tackle started creating creases for quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and the running back trio of Kenneth Farrow, Javin Webb and Ryan Jackson to the tune of 366 yards on 54 carries for a tidy 6.77 yards per carry. The effort wasn’t neglected by Cougars head coach Tom Herman as he commented on the ‘big uglies’ up front (via uhcougars.com), “They played great for having to adjust (to injuries). We had 689 yards on 78 plays and 366 yards rushing. That’s something that hasn’t been done around here in a long time. For them to do it, being piecemealed together in a week and a half, they responded really well. Without watching the film, I’m sure they made a bunch of mistakes. We always will. But I felt them in the running game, I felt them in the pass protection and they responded to the challenge of picking up the sword when other guys went down and they did it well.”
Of course it helps when you have as dynamic a QB as Ward who can break contain and hurt you with his feet even when a pass play is called. Of the junior’s 91 yards (on 10 carries), 87 of them came on called drop-backs or roll outs by offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Two of those five adlib runs accounted for 66 yards. For the season Ward is averaging 96.7 yards per game on only 15 carries. Each time the Tyler, Texas native decides to pull the ball down he’s averaging 6.4 yards per rush, with 4 TDs after crossing the goal line twice Saturday night.
Farrow had trouble running inside early on (highlighted by being stopped three straight times on second-and-one inside Texas State territory during the aforementioned first quarter offensive struggles), but as the game progressed the ‘big back’ began wearing the smaller Bobcats front seven out as he finished with 68 yards on 17 carries. For the season Farrow is averaging 75 yards per game on 18 carries but surprisingly hasn’t scored a TD yet this season.
The surprise of the game, and season early on, has to be the emergence as Webb as the number two running back. Herman had mentioned numerous times how he was impressed with Webb’s burst through the hole with Saturday being no different as he gashed the Bobcats for 90 yards on only 15 carries, many of them through the middle on inside zone plays. Webb is matching Ward’s 6.4 yards per rush on the season (141 yards on 22 carries) and two scores. Jackson had his best game of the season with 66 yards on only 9 carries including a 25-yard TD run on a carry in which he beat every Bobcat defender around the edge late in the game. If the run game can continue averaging 5.5 yards per carry as they have thus far, this is going to be a special season on Cullen Boulevard.
When Ward passed, and he passed well completing 17-of-21 passes for 274 yards and a score including connecting on his first 8 passes for 143 yards, it was the Demarcus Ayers show. The diminutive receiver caught 8 passes for 126 yards and 2 TDs including a score on a beautifully run post-corner route on third-and-goal from the four yard line. Ayers also added a 53-yard run late in the game. As the most experienced receiver, Ayers is truly taking over as a team leader both on and off the field. For the season he’s averaging 100 yards per game receiving on almost 9 receptions per. Three different receivers caught TDs from Ward Saturday night as the other receivers are starting to step up to match Ayers production. Chance Allen is starting to use his world class track type speed to beat opponents over the top as demonstrated on his first reception of the game, a 33-yard bomb for the game’s first score. Ward made a great pass from the pocket off of play-action as Applewhite wants to continue taking shots down field, per Herman. Allen had 49 yards on 4 receptions Saturday night and is averaging 14.2 yards per reception on his 11 catches total through 3 games. With more practice the former Oregon transfer and Ward will hook up on more deep passes, especially off of play-action once Farrow and the inside run game get more on track.
After Texas State tied the game midway through the first, Ward used his mobility to buy time for Steven Dunbar to get open 20 yards down field. The sophomore receiver would then run 45 yards for the go ahead score. That YAC (yards after the catch) yardage will also be important as the season progresses as drives will stall and it’ll be up to the players to simply make plays. Dunbar had 80 yards on the game and has 134 on the season on only 7 catches. Kyle Postma added a 49-yard reception late as the reserves were mopping up and is averaging a team best 24.2 yards per reception (145 yards on 6 receptions), mainly on various screens in which he can use his athleticism to outrun defenders. Unfortunately he’ll probably be moving back to QB as backup Adam Schultz injured his knee late in the game and may be out for an extended time, if not the season as he was carried off the field late after a rush off of a read-option keeper. Tight end Tyler McCloskey caught 2 passes for 19 yards and has 4 receptions as Applewhite continues to figure out how to incorporate the position into the offense. In all, the passing game is looking pretty good early in the season as Ward has completed 75-percent of his passes (61-for-81) while averaging 261.7 yards per game with 8 TDs to only 1 interception.
I’ve been impressed with the formations and sets Applewhite has run, especially putting Ayers all over the field even in the backfield not allowing opposing defensive backs the opportunity to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Ward is putting the ball right on the receivers in the short quick passing game so they can use their speed in space. The receivers are also doing a nice job of blocking downfield on Ward scrambles and screen passes as well. Too many times over the past few years the receivers would line up mainly in one spot while motioning occasionally giving opposing defenses better opportunity to game plan a scheme to slow them down. For the season the Coogs are sixth nationally averaging 48.3 points per game while ranking seventh in total offense; tenth in rushing averaging 286 yards per game and 23rd in passing with 304 through the air.
Defensively, coordinator Todd Orlando did a nice job scheming up a plan to slow down the Bobcats multiple sets as Herman commented, “Credit to Coach Orlando and Coach Naivar and that defensive staff. There weren't a whole lot of calls in this game because of how multiple they are, and three of probably the top four or five things that can tax a defense mentally in terms of assignments: one is your triple option assignments, and this team runs some triple options and runs them well. Two; their unbalanced formations, which this team has a ton of unbalanced formations that create extra gaps in the run game. You have to be sound in terms of who's eligible and who's ineligible when they're in unbalanced formations. We did well there. They major in that run-pass option stuff, where it's a run play with guys running pass routes. The quarterback can pull it out and throw it to them at any time. Those were three things that were extremely mentally challenging for a defensive unit. Coach Orlando and Coach Naivar had one call that was an automatic check, basically on first or second down all night. We were going to line up and play their tendencies based on formations. Our guys did a nice job of executing that."
While Texas State had 401 yards of total offense (302 passing, 99 rushing), most came in the second half when the game was out of hand. In the first half the Bobcats had only 217 yards highlighted by only 48 rushing. The front three of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux with reserves Nick Thurman, Zack Vaughan, Jerard Carter and Kameron Eloph won’t get credit stats wise, but they were more than stout up front as they shut down the inside run game of the Bobcats. With no inside run game many of the option plays weren’t effective.
The aforementioned defensive line combined for only 9 tackles, but this defense is set up to allow the linebackers and secondary to make plays behind the line of scrimmage which is exactly what they did Saturday night and for the season as a whole. With inside linebacker Mathew Adams being suspended for a violation of team rules, Orlando started with a nickel unit of defensive backs or a 3-3-5 base to get more speed on the field in order to deal with the Bobcats multiple sets. Outside rush linebacker Tyus Bowser basically acts like a defensive end anyway but has the athleticism to stick with tight ends and running backs coming out of the back field. Bowser’s strength however, remains in his ability to use his quickness on his 6-foot-3 inch, 240 pound frame to get around opposing offensive tackles to pressure opposing QBs. Saturday was no different as the junior had 7 tackles, including 1 for loss and a sack. Of the defenses 8 sacks this season, Bowser leads the way with 3. The strong side outside linebacker Steven Taylor added 5 tackles (including 1 for loss) and a sack as well. Taylor’s 2 sacks for the season is second behind Bowser and his 17 total tackles is tied for third on the well balanced attacking unit. Middle linebacker Elandon Roberts had a team high 10 tackles and leads the D with 31 overall, including 5 for loss.
While shutting down the run game this season, the secondary continues to give up big plays as their 313 yard average overall suggests. The 121st ranking nationally will need to be improved but can be explained in not executing assignments as Herman mentioned after the game, “We had three huge plays in that first game that, again, not a guy thinking the call was left when it was right or it wasn’t a true blown assignment. It was a guy that knew a coverage, knew what his responsibility was but did not execute it, and that was a concern, but they really stepped up and cut those mistakes down to a minimum.” The lack of execution also comes from the secondary of Brandon Wilson and William Jackson at corner with Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald at safety not handing off receivers to one another or to the linebackers from one zone to another, especially when Orlando dials up a zone blitz in which one of the linebackers or safeties are rushing on a delay blitz. Safety Lee Hightower has done a nice job as the nickel back, especially on those delayed blitzes. While he has only 9 tackles he’s done a nice job at pressuring opposing QBs forcing them to throw the ball earlier than they’ve wanted. Overall however Orlando has called a nice mix of rushing with only four down linemen and calling up various blitzes so far this season.
Fortunately after allowing some yards between the 20’s early on, the “Third Ward D” stepped up in forcing two early turnovers; two forced fumbles by McDonald and Stewart which recovered by Jackson and McDonald respectively. Both turnovers came inside the Houston 30-yard line early when it was still a game. McDonald was his usual ball hawking self as he was all over the field with 10 tackles. McDonald and Stewart are second and third on the defense with 22 and 17 tackles respectively. The Coogs plus-7 turnover margin has them ranked third nationally on the young season and has covered up the errors in the passing game thus far.
Three areas that need to be cleaned up are special teams, penalties and red zone conversions. Wilson opened the game by not kneeling down after catching the opening kickoff in the end zone. If not for an inadvertent whistle the Bobcats might have stripped Wilson and scored a TD which could have changed the complexion of the game. He needs to make better decisions returning kickoffs as he tries to do too much sometimes with the 100-yard kickoff return two weeks ago at Louisville being a prime example. If not for missed tackles, the return would have resulted in only a 10-yard gain. Logan Piper continues to punt well as he pinned the Bobcats inside their only 20 yard line on his only two punts. Ty Cummings has 10 touchbacks on his 26 kickoffs and opponents are only averaging 19.8 yards per return. Kyle Bullard barely squeezed a 26-yard field goal between the uprights and is 4-for-6 overall on the season.
As far as penalties, the Coogs committed 10 for 69 yards and have 26 for 200 yards overall, ranking them 75th nationally in penalties per game and 83rd in penalty yards (66.7), something Herman and special teams coordinator Jason Washington are not happy about for sure. As far as red zone conversions are concerned, the offense crossed the goal line on four of six trips inside the 20-yard line. For the season they have only scored TDs on 10 of 16 total trips. That 62.5 touchdown percentage ranks them only 61st overall. Scoring “3’s” instead of “7’s” in close games later on in the season may lead to a conference loss.
Herman is not the type of coach to pat his guys on the back even after a blowout win as he’ll get back to practice this week in preparing for Tulsa next week, “I’m proud of our guys. We’re going to celebrate this win with our family and friends, and then tomorrow is a work day. We have to get ready for a really good Tulsa team that I believe had a week off this week, and so they’ve had two weeks to prepare for us. We’re 0-0 in the American Athletic Conference right now, and our goal is to be 1-0 after this week.”