Post Game Analysis: Tulsa

Your Houston Cougars dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, winning 38-24 at Tulsa in their first American Athletic conference contest to stay undefeated at 4-0. Tom Herman is only the second UH head coach to win his first four games, joining John Jenkins (8-0 in 1990).

As in their previous three games, they rode the hot arm and legs of quarterback Greg Ward Jr. as the junior ran for a Houston quarterback record 182 yards (on 20 carries), surpassing Lionel Wilson’s 158 yards on versus TCU on October 30, 1982 (the two previous stats via the UH sports information department). Ward also completed 22-of-38 passes for another 273 yards and tied his own QB record for rushing touchdowns with three. In all the Coogs rushed for 365 yards and are averaging an impressive 305.8 per game on the season.

For the fourth straight game the offense has set the tone, scoring on their first possession of the game, this on a 9-play, 75 yard drive that took 2-minutes, 26-seconds off the clock after Tulsa scored via a field goal on their first possession. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite did a nice job in keeping the Tulsa defense off balance with a solid mixture of run and pass, highlighted by a TD on a 3-yard QB draw by Ward. Of his 20 carries, Ward pulled the ball down on unplanned runs five times (according to my count), which accounted for 128 of his yards (on runs of 27, 44, 5, 12 and 40).

On the next two drives Applewhite may have been heeding head coach Herman’s mantra on toughness a little too much for my liking, running six straight times right up the middle leading to two straight “three-and-outs.” Running back Kenneth Farrow ran for 159 yards on 19 carries with two scores but had a tough time running between the tackles in the early going as Tulsa’s D was stacking the box. In fact like with Ward, Farrow lived off of the explosive play Saturday afternoon with three of his runs accounting for 105 of his total yards on runs of 27 (in the second quarter), 33 (early in the third) and a beautiful 45 yarder to end the scoring for the Coogs. Javin Webb and Ryan Jackson didn’t fare much better, combining for 26 yards on 11 carries. The offensive line of Marcus Oliver, Carter Wall, Colton Freeman, Alex Cooper and Zach Johnson need to do a better job on moving their man off the ball on the inside zone running game if the Coogs hope to continue their success offensively as it’ll be tougher to live off relying on long yardage runs by Ward the rest of the season. The O-line did a nice job in wearing out the Tulsa D-line however as on Farrow’s 45 yard scamper they did a nice job at sealing off the backside which allowed Farrow to cut back on the play on the way to the end zone.

Passing wise Ward wasn’t as accurate as he completed “only” 58-percent of his passes, as opposed to the 75-percent he had been completing coming into the game (good for third nationally). He missed on at least four attempts on deep posts and several intermediate passes he usually completes. Of course his receivers did drop a few easy passes including a few by Chance Allen and Demarcus Ayers, whom both caught 6 passes for 54 and 78 yards respectively. Steven Dunbar added 58 yards on 3 receptions with tight end Tyler McCloskey adding 24 on 3. Hayden Daniels made his seasons’ debut and caught a 33 yard pass. Jackson added a 27 yard reception off of a nice swing pass as well, something I’d love to see more of the rest of the season. The receivers did a great job of blocking on outside runs to free up Ward and the backs for extra yardage throughout the game.

Defensively, the Coogs held the Golden Wave to 24 points, though they entered play on Saturday averaging nearly 42. They passed for 326 yards (completing 26-for-44) though 44 came on Tulsa’s final possession when the Coogs were clearly in prevent mode. Tulsa rushed for 130 though 23 came on a run on that final possession as well. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando once again came up with a brilliant game plan against a team that’s designed to take what opposing defenses give. If a defense stacks the box they’ll throw to the outside where the receivers line up at the sidelines, forcing one-on-one matchups. If defenses only rush three or four, Phillip Montgomery’s offense will run the ball inside. Orlando did a masterful job on mixing up his various blitzes whether they be of the zone or delayed variety. He also mixed coverage’s on the back end between zone and man.

For the fourth game in a row up front, the defensive line of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux (along with Nick Thurman, Zack Vaughan and Jerard Carter in reserve) did a great job at getting off of, and defeating blocks at the point of attack against Tulsa’s offensive line. Malveaux and Thurman combed for four sacks and four tackles-for-loss. The line also did a nice job in getting their hands up, batting down three passes when Tulsa went to their quick passing game. D’Juan Hines even batted a pass down, lining up as a defensive end in a 3-man front on a Tulsa third-and-long in the second half, showing off the creativity Orlando has in utilizing his personnel this season.

With the inside running lanes closed off for the most part, the UH linebackers had room to make plays, and make plays they did, especially Steven Taylor and Elandon Roberts. The two-man wrecking crew combined for 29 tackles (16 for Taylor and 13 for Roberts) with the other 15 defenders, who got credit for a tackle, getting a combined 53. Taylor added 4 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks, many on the delayed blitzing referred to earlier, while Roberts always seemed to be in the middle of every inside run, meeting Tulsa’s running backs at the line of scrimmage. Outside rush backer, Tyus Bowser, added 6 tackles of his own and forced a fumble.

Even in giving up 326 yards the defensive backfield played perhaps their best game of the season as they were isolated all game long. Cornerback William Jackson III broke up three passes, all in one-on-one coverage against Tulsa’s physical receiver Keyarris Garrett as both will be playing in the league one day no doubt. Jackson even made himself more money with his play Saturday as he probably shot up a few spots, potentially in the first round, in next season’s NFL draft in showing he can be left on an island against a physical yet speedy outside receiver. The opposite corner, Brandon Wilson, wasn’t as lucky as he gave up a few big plays, yet added four tackles and a pass breakup. Safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald were their usual ball hawking selves, with Stewart recovering the fumble that Bowser forced. ‘Wordwide’ added 7 tackles including one for loss while McDonald also had 7 tackles and a pass breakup. Nickel-back Lee Hightower had 6 tackles and an interception which quickly halted momentum that Tulsa had after recovering a Dunbar fumble inside the UH 35-yard line in the middle of the third quarter when it was still a one possession game with Houston leading 24-17 late in the third. Tulsa’s QB was forced to throw the ball early as Orlando sent McDonald on a zone blitz. The linebackers and secondary tackled well in space all day long.

The Coogs need to improve their special teams play if they hope to continue winning this season. Kyle Bullard missed two makeable field goals of 40 and 44 yards and is now 5-for-9 on the season, with all four misses coming from 40 yards out. Logan Piper boomed a punt for 71 yards, pinning Tulsa their own five yard line early in the game. The Houston punter pinned Tulsa inside their own 20 on one other occasion as well as he’s done so on 5 of 12 punts this season. Unfortunately he did shank one early in the first giving Tulsa the ball at the Cougar 48 on the way towards their first TD of the game. Webb returned 3 kickoffs for only 58 yards while Ayers did not return a punt.

While I admire Herman’s aggressiveness, going for a fake punt from your own 30-yard line isn’t something I would call consistently, especially when you need your un-athletic punter to run 16 yards to convert a fourth-and-one. Including that failed fake punt, the offense couldn’t convert on fourth-and-short in the first half on three separate occasions. That did not go unnoticed to Herman as he said to the CBS Sports Network sideline reporter as the half ended, “Our culture is to go for it on fourth-and-short. We’re not executing and it’s a little embarrassing right now but we’re going to have a stern lecture about it at half time. Trust me on that.”

That lack of execution also hurt in the red zone as the offense scored TDs on only three of six possessions while connecting on a field goal, missing a field goal and turning the ball over on downs when Webb couldn’t convert a fourth-and-one inside Tulsa’s two-yard line in the first quarter. Penalties also hurt as two pass interference calls on McDonald and Hightower and a personal foul on Carter all led to first downs, with the two PI’s helping Tulsa on a scoring drive in the third quarter to pull to within 24-17 in the third. On the plus side those three aforementioned penalties were the only penalties of the game for the Coogs, including zero in the first half.

Over all I love the effort and attitude this team possesses. The offense is creative under Applewhite, the defense plays fundamentally sound under Orlando and they all ooze toughness under Herman. Stay logged into Coogfans all week for my game preview as the pretty Ponies from SMU come calling to TDECU for a nationally televised game this coming Thursday on ESPN2.

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