Game 4 Preview: Tulsa

Coming off a 59-14 victory versus Texas State, your Houston Cougars take to the road for their first American Athletic Conference game of the season at Tulsa this Saturday October the 3rd. Game time is set for 11AM (CST) at H.A. Chapman Stadium and will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.

The Golden Hurricane (2-1) and the Coogs (3-0) have a lot in common; both are part of the AAC’s newly minted Western division. Both teams have had a nice rivalry formed as both were members of Conference USA. Tulsa began play in the American Athletic just last season however while the Coogs had joined the previous season (2013). This is the 40th meeting between the two teams with Houston leading the series 21 to 18. Both fan bases feel rejuvenated after a few down years due to new head coaches who were once offensive coordinators at big time FBS programs; Tom Herman of Houston and Phillip Montgomery of Tulsa who coached at Ohio State under Urban Meyer and Baylor under Art Briles respectively.

Both teams have high powered offenses in the early going this season as the Coogs are tied for sixth nationally, averaging 48.3 points-per-game, while The Golden Hurricane ranks 16th at 41.7 points per game. Houston is averaging 590.7 total yards of offense (sixth) while Tulsa averages 607 (fourth). The teams produce those results different ways as the Coogs try to remain more balanced, averaging 286 yards rushing (10th) and 304.7 yards passing (23rd). Tulsa meanwhile, is averaging “only” 216.3 yards on the ground, ranking them 33rd nationally, but a robust 390.7 yards through the air ranking them sixth.

The differences between the two squads end on defense, where the Coogs allow opponents to average 23 points-per-game (57th) to Tulsa’s 39 (114th). Houston’s defense allows 379 yards total offense (68th) with Tulsa allowing almost 200 more at 575.3 (125th). Only four teams have performed as well as Houston up front as they’ve shut down their three opponents’ run game, allowing only 66 yards rushing per game thus far on the young season, ranking them FIFTH nationally. Unfortunately for the Coogs they don’t match up well with a high powered Tulsa pass offense as they’ve allowed opponents to strike through the air to the tune of 313 yards per game (121st). Tulsa on the other hand can’t seem to stop either the ground or pass game in allowing 270 yards rushing (124th) and 304.3 yards passing (118th). The outlier in those stats is that Tulsa just lost at the 16th ranked team in the nation two weeks ago, Oklahoma, by the score of 52-38. The Sooners are top-20 in both scoring and passing offense while the Coogs best opponent was a Louisville squad that was led by a true freshman quarterback for most of the game and struggled offensively. That is until a more experienced pocket passing QB entered the game to start the fourth quarter, where the Cards torched the Coogs through the air scoring two touchdowns in that 34-31 loss in Louisville.

It should surprise no one that the Golden Hurricane are so prolific offensively considering Montgomery coached under Art Briles at both Baylor, Houston and Stephenville High School for the previous 16 seasons. Montgomery, who calls plays, has the team buying into his “fun, fast and physical” mantra where they up the tempo to the tune of 266 plays through three games or a nation’s fourth best of almost 90 plays per game. In order to accomplish this type of tempo, a QB is needed whom can control the controlled chaos on the field; a QB who can make checks at the line of scrimmage and get the offense out of bad plays at breakneck speed. Montgomery has this in junior signal caller Dane Evans (6-feet-1 inch, 218 pounds). According to his bio via Tulsa football’s website, the Sanger, Texas product enrolled at Tulsa in January 2012 after graduating early and has played in 20 career games with 17 career starts over the past three seasons. Overall for his career he’s completed 340-of-657 passes for 4,000 career yards with 27 TDs. After starting all 12 games last season in which he completed 55-percent of his passes for 3,102 yards and 23 TDs, he’s off to an even better start this year under Montgomery’s up-tempo no huddle spread scheme, having completed better than 62-percent of his passes (71-of-114) for 1,172 yards with 8 TDs tossed to only 2 interceptions. He’s averaging 390 yards passing per game while attempting 38 passes per game, as opposed to last season’s 258 yards as they tried to pound the ball and control the clock more offensively last season. Though the scheme has changed from last year’s more ball control philosophy, Evans still has experience with this type of spread as he ran the same type of offense in high school. Evans is also agile enough for Montgomery to employ zone-read option plays in his scheme to further complicate opposing defensive coordinators’ jobs.

Evans has the arm to make every throw on the field necessary as Montgomery wants to stress opposing defenses both horizontally and vertically, whether it be via various screens or vertically with deep posts as evidenced by Evans’ 16.5 yards per completion. Coach Herman on Tulsa’s offense during Monday’s weekly media press conference (via, “The thing they do well is very much like Baylor. On first and second down you see receivers all the way out to the sideline. They’re going to kind of test the waters so to speak. If you’re covering those guys that far split up the line that leaves a whole lot of space to run the football on the inside and if you’re going to commit to the run and leave guys on the outside, they are going to take advantage of that. We’re going to max protect. A lot of people look at Baylor’s offense and Tulsa’s offense and say they are throwing for all these yards, they must be getting all these guys out to all these routes and using complex routes. They’re really not. It’s all based on play action pass and numbers count. If you are going to commit to the run they are going to seven-man protect, keep the running back in, and throw three receiver routes. Their guys are going to try main coverage. They have a tremendous wide receiver, and we are going to have our hands full with him. Their quarterback is also a really good player. Most of their throwing yards are coming off of first and second down, so it’s going to be hard to be pressured. We’re going to have to win some more matchups up front and we are going to have to be very disguised in our defensive philosophy.”

Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, co-defensive coordinator Craig Naivar and cornerbacks coach Jason Washington are going to have their hands full in game-planning to stop Tulsa’s explosive wideouts, featuring Keyarris Garrett (6’4, 221, Sr.) at outside receiver and Keevan Lucas (5’10, 198, Jr.) on the inside. Both are great route runners with Garrett using his physicality to high-point balls against smaller corners, while Lucas “blows the top off” secondaries with his speed. Both are in the top-10 nationally in receiving yards per game with Garrett, who’s third, averaging 151.3 (454 yards on 26 receptions) and Lucas averaging 114 (342 on 19) which ranks him tenth. Montgomery will make Orlando pay if the first year DC decides to play his corners in off-coverage in their various zone schemes as it would amount to basic “pitch-and-catch” for the veteran Golden Hurricane QB and receivers. The two Tulsa receivers are also experienced at running rub or pick routes off of shallow crossers to get open and Montgomery will get the ball to them on quick slants versus man coverage as well.

Not to be outdone by Garrett and Lucas is Josh Atkinson (6’2, 208, Jr), who’s averaging nearly 75 yards per game himself (223 yards on 13 receptions) as he has a nice combination of Lucas’s speed and Garrett’s physicality. Lucas leads the trio with five TDs with Atkinson adding two and Garrett one, accounting for all of Evans eight scores through the air. All three receivers average between 17 and 18 yards-per-reception, with Lucas at 18 per, Garrett at 17.5 and Atkinson at 17.2. Conner Floyd (6’0, 210, Sr.) and Justin Hobbs (6’4, 207, RS-Fr.) are the fourth and fifth receivers when Tulsa goes to their five-wide package. Floyd has 6 receptions for 59 yards with Hobbs adding a catch for 17 yards on the season.

The self-proclaimed “Jack Boyz” will definitely have their hands full with Tulsa’s receivers with William Jackson (6’2, 195, Sr.) probably getting the duties versus Garrett on the outside. Being on “an island” suits Jackson just fine as he’s fast enough to hang with receivers deep yet big enough to handle them over the middle. Last week versus Texas State Jackson read a route by a Bobcat receiver, squatted down and jumped it taking it to the house for a 35-yard “pick-six.” For the season Jackson has 8 tackles, 4 passes defended (as teams don’t test him as much), the interception and a recovered fumble. Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) is the other corner who probably covers Atkinson on the opposite side. Wilson has 16 tackles, including 2 for loss as Orlando likes to use him in run support, with a pass defended. Wilson will have to be able to tackle in space being on an island himself but has been able to do so thus far on the young season as his 14 solo tackles (ranking him third on the defense) would suggest. With as many four and five receiver sets as Tulsa likes to use, Howard Wilson (6’1, 185, So.) potentially not being available could really hurt the unit as he’s second on the team with three passes defended to go along with his five tackles. Herman mentioned during his presser that he’s day-to-day with a sprained MCL. Nickel back Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) will see plenty of snaps as Orlando has shown 3-3-5 stack alignments, using odd fronts along the line while sending any number of linebackers or safeties on zone blitzes in order to pressure QBs. Hightower is slowly but surely getting his legs back under him after recovering from major knee surgery from the middle of last season, and has 9 tackles through 3 games.

The safety tandem of Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) will have to be their usual ball-hawking selves against an efficient Tulsa offense. McDonald is the second leading tackler with 22, including 15 solo, while his two interceptions also lead the unit. Stewart is second in interceptions himself with his one tying him with Jackson and Howard Wilson, while also adding a fumble recovery to match Stewart’s and Brandon Wilson. When Orlando goes with a dime package (six defensive backs), Khalil Williams (6’0, 200, So.) usually gets the call and has played well adding two passes defended and six tackles.

Tulsa’s passing game opens up their inside run game as the field is spread so wide both horizontally and vertically, which the duo of Zack Langer (6’0, 215, Sr.) and D’Angelo Brewer (5’9, 185, So.) are able to exploit. Langer, the bruiser, is averaging almost 30 carries per game with his 88 going for 389 yards to go along with 5 TDs. Brewer is more the scat back as he averages 5.8 yards per carry (238 yards on 41 carries). With all of the underneath space available both are productive safety valves coming out of the back field in the passing game as Langer averages 18 yards on his 3 receptions.

With inside linebacker Mathew Adams (6’0, 230, So.) producing so little this season due to injury and suspension, last week, it’s up to the experienced pair of Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) from his strong side outside backer spot and Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) in the middle to stop the Tulsa running game with little help from the secondary. Roberts leads the defense with 31 tackles (22 solo) and 5 for loss while adding a sack. Taylor meanwhile is third with 17 tackles but 15 of them are solo. This will be important against Tulsa’s slot receivers in space but is also adapt at rushing the passer with 2 sacks. Adams is listed in this week’s ‘two-deep’ but it’s not certain how much he’ll be able to contribute as he’s only had three tackles in his first two games. Replacing him has been true freshman Emeke Egbule (6’3, 230) who’s added five tackles, including one for loss and a sack so far this season as the North Shore linebacker pipeline continues.

Tulsa’s offensive line has come together nicely this season as they’ve had to move players around to find where they best fit as well as due to injury. Left tackle Evan Plagg (6’4, 279, So.) impressed the coaches so much during Spring ball that Garrett Stafford (6’5, 314, Sr.), who started the previous two seasons at left tackle (24 consecutive starts), moved to left guard. Chandler Miller (6’3, 293) is a redshirt freshman who’s taken over at center. With Stafford moving to left guard, Chris Wallace (6’5, 311, Jr.), who had started all 12 games last year at the position, moved to right guard. After right tackle Blake Belcher went down due to injury, Willie Wright (6’3, 291, R-Fr.) moved from defensive tackle to replace him. Wright played the position at Houston’s Cypress Ridge High School. Mandel Dixon Jr. (6’2, 240, Sr.) is a tight end and while not being featured in the passing game receiving wise (2 catches for 16 yards) he is a good inline blocker and will be used as an H-back in short yardage situations. The unit has allowed 6 sacks on the season, against a Cougars defense that’s brought down opposing QBs 8 times.

The unsung heroes of the “Third Ward Defense” has been the defensive line of Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) at defensive ends and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr) at the nose. Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.), Melvin Holland (6’1, 300, Sr.) and Zack Vaughan (6’4, 270, R-Fr.) have contributed nicely in reserve as Holland earned a scholarship this spring and Vaughan adding a fumble recovery last week. While Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) is listed as an outside linebacker I include him on the defensive line as his strength is rushing the passer as his unit leading three sacks (along with three tackles-for-loss) attests.

Coach Herman on the down linemen’s role in allowing opponents to rush for only 66 yards per game so far this season, “B.J. Singleton is an NFL player himself and will get a chance at the next level. He has very unselfishly moved to nose guard and has played a ton for us. By the nature of our defensive scheme, the nose guard isn’t going to make a ton of plays. Maybe a tackle for a loss every here and there or slip by a combo block and tackle the running back, but their job is to eat up blocks up front and allow the linebackers to play, and knock on wood right now they’re doing a heck of a job at that. B.J. is doing a fantastic job for a guy that when you look at the stat sheet, I don’t even know if he had any stats. He sure as heck did in our team meetings and defensive meetings. He had an assist on every one of those tackles that Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor made. He might not have put an arm on the ball carrier, but he certainly had an assist in what they were doing. Again Tomme Mark and Cameron Malveaux continue to provide a lot of support for the linebackers.”

Defensively for the Golden Hurricane, under coordinator Bill Young, the unit tries to create pressure by sending linebackers or safeties from different angles, usually on delayed blitzes. Their four down linemen are led by defensive end Derrick Alexander (6’2, 284, Sr.). The three year starter has only 8 tackles, including 2 for loss, but also has a sack and 2 fumble recoveries and is a true sideline-to-sideline athlete who can interrupt the inside screen game. Inside at tackle are Jesse Brubaker (6’3, 285, So.) and Derrick Luetjen (6’3, 291, Sr.). The two have combined for two tackles-for-loss, a sack and a fumble recovery, by Brubaker. Opposite Alexander is sophomore Frankie Davis (6’2, 240), who took over for Jeremy Smith and has 12 tackles through 2 starts. Last week, the readjusted line of Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.), Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, R-Fr.), Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) and Zach Johnson (6’6, 315, Sr.), from left to right tackle, led the way for a Houston offense to gain 689 total yards against Texas State (366 rushing and 323 passing).

Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and his staff’s game plan should be to wear the smaller Tulsa defensive front out. Tulsa’s offense already doesn’t help their defense out as they hold the ball for only 27-minutes, 11-seconds on average, which ranks them 101st nationally. Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) has struggled to run consistently between the tackles this season and is averaging 75 yards per game after finishing last season with 6 consecutive games of at least 100 yards. Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) has overtaken Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.) for the backup running back role, impressing last week with 90 yards on 15 carries. Jackson himself had his best game with 66 yards on only 9 carries but may be playing some wide receiver for depth issues as Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, So.) now replaces Adam Schulz (6’2, 210, Sr.) who tore an ACL last week. The offense is averaging 286 yards rushing per game with Farrow second behind QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 185, Jr.) who is averaging 96.7 yards per game on the ground. The fleet-of-foot Ward is also averaging 6.4 yards per rush and has crossed the goal line four times. Herman wants Ward to continue going through his progressions more instead of just pulling the ball down. He mentioned Ward rushed 8 times last week with 3 coming off unplanned scrambles. By my unofficial count, Ward pulled the ball down 5 times for 87 yards including 34 and 32 yard scrambles which both led to touchdowns as his playmaking ability is no doubt a huge part of the offense.

The Tulsa linebacker unit of Matt Linscott (6’1, 220, Jr.), Trent Martin (6’2, 235, Jr.) and Zik Asiegbu (6’0, 210, Sr.) will be charged with controlling said Houston run game. Linscott, from his “star” linebacker spot, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position, uses his speed and football acumen in penetrating the line of scrimmage. The former walk-on began his career as a safety and uses that knowledge to quickly diagnose plays and is quick to get to the ball as he’s first in the American and tied with 14 others for 23rd nationally with 6 tackles-for-loss. Martin has 5 tackles-for-loss from his Mike linebacker spot. Young alleviates the lack of size by stunting his linebackers via scissor stunts or “cross dogs” in which both linebackers blitz right up the A or B gaps. If they don’t get to Ward behind the line of scrimmage the fleet-of-foot Cougars signal caller should be able to exploit the middle of the field for huge yardage.

Ward is completing 75-percent of his passes (61-for-81), which ranks him THIRD nationally, while averaging 262 yards passing with 8 TDs to only 1 interception. Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) continues his all-around stellar play after accounting for 190 all-purpose yards last week and is averaging 100 yards receiving on 9 receptions so far this season. His route running has really improved and Applewhite continues innovative ways of getting him the ball in the short passing game, such as swing passes out of the backfield, so he can’t be jammed on the line of scrimmage. Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) and Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) also had nice games last week and must continue to compliment Ayers so opposing secondaries can’t shade coverage his way. Allen is averaging 52 yards per game with Dunbar a close 45.

Opposing them will be Tulsa corners Kerwin Thomas (5’10, 171, So.) and Darrell Williams (5’10, 197, Sr.). The two have a combined ONE pass breakup and interception (both by Thomas) as Young plays mixes zone and man coverage. Strong safety Michael Mudoh (5’10, 205, Sr.) is the unit’s leading tackler with 40 with free safety Jordan Mitchell (6’2, 180, So.) adding 15. If the Coogs running game is effective, Tulsa may have to man up on the outsides in order to help with run support. If this is the case, look for Ward to get the ball to the taller Cougar receivers against the smaller Golden Hurricane corners off of deep post routes.

Special teams wise, Tulsa has a pair of good kickers in Dalton Parks (6’3, 209, Jr.)  and Redford Jones (5’10, 174, So.). Parks is averaging 42.1 yards per punt and has 4 punts of 50-plus yards while pinning opposing offenses inside their 20-yard line on 4 of his 14 total punts. Jones meanwhile, has connected on 7-of-9 field goals this season. For Houston, Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) is averaging 43.3 yards on his 9 punts while pinning opponents inside their 20 on 3 of them while booming 2 more than 50-plus yards. Kyle Bullard has connected on 4-of-6 field goal attempts himself so the kicker battle could be a wash Saturday afternoon. In the return games for Tulsa, Bishop Louie (5’10, 170, So.) has returned 6 punts for a 17 yard average and returned one punt for zero yards. For the Coogs, Brandon Wilson must continue to make better decisions on whether or not to bring kickoffs out of the endzone. If not for his 100 yard return at Louisville, which was a bad decision per Herman as it should have resulted in only a ten yard gain, Wilson would only be averaging 21 yards on 6 returns instead of 32 yards on 7, ranking him ninth nationally. Ayers has returned 6 punts for only a 6.5 yard per return average. Tulsa opponents have a 20.6 yard kickoff return and a 9.7 yard punt return average. Houston opponents meanwhile, return kickoffs for 19.8 and punts for 6.8 yards on each return.

Keys to the Game: Red zone efficiency, penalties and turnovers

In what will probably amount to a close, high scoring affair, which team converts their red zone opportunities into “7’s” instead of “3’s” will be a huge factor in which team wins Saturday. The Coogs have crossed the goal line inside the opponents’ 20-yard line on 10 of 16 chances. That 62.5-percent conversion rate ranks them 61st nationally. Tulsa meanwhile allows opponents to score TDs on 10 of 14 said trips, ranking them 112th at 71.4-percent. Conversely, Tulsa’s offense has broken down inside the red zone, scoring TDs on only 8 of 17 trips. That less than average 47-percent ranks them 110th overall. The Coogs defense ranks 108th at 70-percent (7 out of 10). Tulsa averages 6.3 penalties for 47.3 yards per game, ranking them 39th and 54th respectively, not bad for a team which is compared to Baylor. The Coogs on the other hand average 9 for 67, ranking 114th and 83rd respectively. In playing in a hostile road environment, Houston cannot afford self-inflicted mental errors to hurt them.

In what could be the most important factor, Houston is THIRD nationally with a plus 2.33 turnover margin while Tulsa is in the negative at a minus .33 ranking them 86th with one more turnover given than taken away. In a game in which both offenses will probably be running up and down the field, the key to victory could be which team turns the ball over the most, or least.

Another factor could be Coach Montgomery, who like Briles can be unpredictable, whether it be onsides kicks, fake punts, going for it on fourth-and-medium or calling trick or gadget plays.

Final Prediction: Houston 45 Tulsa 42

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