Game 5 Preview: SMU

Coming off an impressive victory in their first conference game last week at Tulsa, your undefeated Houston Cougars (4-0) host the SMU Mustangs (1-4, 0-1 in conference) this Thursday at TDECU Stadium. The nationally televised contest (ESPN2) is set to start at 7pm (CST). Thursday’s contest marks the 31st meeting between the two teams with Houston owning a 19-10-1 edge in the series. The Cougars have won the last two meetings, eight of the last nine and 11 of the last 13 meetings (info via UH’s g

The Coogs and Ponies have many similarities; both universities are located in major cities (Dallas and Houston) that have athletic programs fighting with professional sports teams for the public’s entertainment dollar. They are both located in recruiting hot beds. And they both have first year head coaches that were “the flavor of the week” as offensive coordinators leading them to their respective jobs. Houston head coach Tom Herman led Ohio State to the national championship last season as lead play caller while SMU’s Chad Morris relied on his legendary status in the state of Texas, posting a 169-38 record overall and winning back-to-back undefeated state championships in his final two seasons as a prep coach at Lake Travis. In all, Morris took six of his teams to Texas State Championship Games, with three of those teams capturing state titles, and earned Coach of the Year honors 11 times (stats via smumustangs.com). Morris then took his talents to Tulsa for a season before becoming the OC at Clemson the past three, setting school records for total offense and scoring (over 500 yards and 40 points per game) multiple years.

One other major similarity is dynamic playmakers at quarterback in Greg Ward Jr. (5-feet-11 inches, 185 pounds) of the Coogs and the Ponies’ Matt Davis (6’0, 212, Jr.). Ward is fifth nationally with 382.5 yards per game (264.5 passing, 118 rushing) while Davis is 19th at 312.4 (236.4 passing, 76 rushing). While I’ll have my ‘keys to the game’ later on, this game could simply come down to which defense stops the other dual threat QB, or at least contains him.

Last season the Mustangs averaged a paltry 11.4 points per game after scoring only 133 points. This season thanks to Morris and his multiple spread attack they’ve scored 134 in their first four games alone and are averaging 31.4 points-per-game overall. In 2014 they averaged only 269.4 total yards of offense. This season that number’s skyrocketed to 428.8 (244.4 passing, 184.4 rushing). The major difference between Morris’s spread and June Jones Run-n-shoot is time of possession. Last season the Ponies held onto the ball for only 28-minutes, 50 seconds. This season they hold onto the rock for 33-minutes, 8-seconds (15th nationally). Slowing down the game offensively is smart since the defense is still having trouble adjusting to coordinator Van Malone’s new scheme, and has youth at every level. In fact, with 17 true and redshirt freshmen playing in week one, SMU ranked ninth among all teams in freshmen played.

Offensively, everything starts with Davis. The Klein Forrest product is completing 60-percent of his passes (88-for-146) with 8 TDs to only 2 interceptions. I would call him a “poor man’s Greg Ward” in that he’s a play-maker with his feet when a play breaks down. Morris will use him much like Coogs OC Major Applewhite uses Ward in designed roll-outs to give the young QB a pass-run option on many plays, while also calling draws or sweeps which allow Davis to use his athletic ability on the edge. Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has done an excellent job this season in mixing in when to blitz versus when to rush only four while playing zone coverage behind it. If the first year DC tries to get too aggressive and his edge rushers lose contain Davis could have a huge game on the ground.

In the passing game Davis has a plethora of young receivers to throw to, led by Courtland Sutton (6’4, 215). The redshirt freshman has made quite the splash early on; catching TDs in each of his first four games (he was shut out in last week’s 49-23 loss to ECU). Sutton is physical enough to outfight smaller corners for any jump balls yet fast enough to outrun bigger corners on the deep ball as he averages 21.4 yards per reception (450 yards on 21 catches), while adding a team leading 5 TDs. Cougars cornerback William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.) did a fantastic job last week against Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett, locked up in man coverage on the outside. Garrett is also a physical and speedy receiver yet Jackson broke up three passes (and has 7 on the season along with an interception and fumble recovery) and will be asked to do the same against Sutton. Ryheem Malone (5’9, 182, So.) is a shifty slot receiver who’s adept at finding the holes in zone coverage and is the second leading receiver with 13 receptions for 163 yards with a score. Xavier Castille (5’11, 204) is a true freshman who has 9 receptions for 92 yards. Kevin Thomas (6’2, 190) and Shelby Walker (6’0, 167) are youngsters (true freshman and sophomore) who have 6 and 5 receptions for 89 and 91 yards respectively. Darius Joseph (5’11, 204, Sr.) is the only veteran of the crew and has 3 receptions for 24 yards.

UH corners Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) and Howard Wilson (6’1, 185, So.); no relation, along with Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 190, RFr.) will all be asked to make plays on the ball and tackle in space. Brandon Wilson has 20 tackles on the year with 2 pass breakups with Howard adding 3 passes defended and an interception. Safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) will need to continue their ball hawking ways as the two have combined for 6 turnovers (a fumble recovery and two interceptions for McDonald and vice versa for Stewart) and 35 solo tackles (19 for McDonald). Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) has 15 tackles at nickel-back and had an interception last week at Tulsa. Only THREE teams have allowed more than the 316.2 passing yards per game that the Coogs secondary has so far this season.

When looking at game tape, I’m sure it hasn’t been lost on Morris and OC Joe Craddock of the Cougars defensive woes in containing opposing tight ends. Morris uses his tight ends as H-backs or fullbacks in the blocking game, but will also put them in motion in order to gain a free release off of the line of scrimmage in the passing game. Jeremiah Gaines (6’2, 250, Jr.) had 96 receiving yards last week, including a 60-yard TD in which he caught a tipped pass down the seam and outraced the ECU secondary for the last 50. Cougar linebackers Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) on the outside and Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) on the inside will be primarily responsible for Gaines and true freshman Mitchel Kaufman (6’3, 220) and cannot get caught looking in the backfield via play-action pass calls. Roberts leads the “Third Ward Defense” with 44 total tackles (and solo with 29) while Taylor leads with 8 tackles-for-loss (and second overall with 33) and 5 sacks, with many coming off of delayed blitz calls.

The Coog linebackers and safeties will also have to contend with the Mustangs running backs catching passes out of the backfield. True freshmen Xavier Jones (5’10, 193) and Braden West (5’10, 170) will line up all over the field including outside or in the slot and will motion into the backfield, or start off in the backfield and motion out to a receiver position in trying to exploit mismatches against linebackers or safeties. Jones is third on the team with 11 receptions but for only 65 yards (5.9 yards per reception), with most of those yards coming off of inside screens. West has caught 7 passes for 61 yards (8.7 ypr).

While the Ponies are averaging 184.4 yards per game, 570 of their total 922 have come against North Texas and FCS foe James Madison. Minus those two games they have averaged a not-so-robust 117.3 yards per game. Davis leads the team in rushing attempts (88), yards (380) and TDs (6) with Jones next at 279 yards on 68 carries and 4 scores. West has 199 yards on 37 carries with one TD and is the scat-back who uses his jitterbug type moves to average 5.4 yards each time he carries the rock, compared to Davis’s 4.3 and Jones 4.1 ypc. Prescott Line (6’0, 237, Jr.) comes in on short yardage downs and has 61 yards on 26 carries this season. The “big back” will also lead block for Davis on draw plays and sweeps.

The Coogs have been stout against the run so far this season, allowing only 82 yards per game (8th nationally) led by the defensive front of Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) at end, and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) in the middle at nose. They won’t combine for flashy stats (three tackles-for-loss and two sacks), but occupy offensive linemen enough for the linebackers and safeties to shoot the gaps and make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is what Orlando has designed for his defensive scheme. Zack Vaughan (6’4, 270, RFr.), Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) and Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) give quality snaps along the line in relief. Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) is an outside linebacker but will line up along the line as a fourth linemen, sometimes with his hands on the ground, sometimes not (in order to confuse offensive lines). Whatever the case, it’s working as Bowser has 3 tackles-for-loss (of his 18 total), 3 sacks and a forced fumble.

The Coogs are coming off of a 5 sack game last week at Tulsa and have 13 on the season (tied for 19th nationally), while the Ponies allowed an astounding NINE last week alone and 21 for the season, placing them dead last in the nation. Many of the sacks however came off of broken plays where Davis would literally run into a sack as his linemen wouldn’t know when or where the young QB pulled the ball down and took off running. Entering play Thursday, the Ponies offensive line will have their fifth different starting lineup in six games and has two redshirt freshman, a sophomore and two seniors, led by Kris Weeks (6’5, 295, Sr.) at right tackle and Taylor Lasecki (6’2, 304, Sr.) at center. Weeks is making his 30th straight start Thursday night while Lasecki will be making his 41st over the past three seasons. The rest of the line however is in transition with redshirt freshman Chad Pursley (6’4, 272) being listed as the first team left tackle for the third week in a row with Nick Natour (6’4, 278, RFr.) and Evan Brown (6’3, 306, So.) being listed at left and right guard respectively. Natour is a first time starter while Brown started 8 games at RG last season. The offense cannot continue relying on Davis making yards off of broken plays in the rush game if SMU hopes to win this game Thursday evening.

Defensively, SMU needs to play with better fundamentals out of their base 4-2-5 as missed tackles has been a major reason why they’re allowing 44.4 points per game (124th) and 593.4 total yards, good for dead last in the nation. The Ponies are allowing 284.8 rushing yards and 308.6 passing, good for 125th and 124th respectively. Houston’s offense meanwhile is rolling, averaging 45.8 points (tied for sixth) and 602.5 total yards per game (fourth). Behind Ward’s 118 rushing yards along with running back Kenneth Farrow’s (5’10, 220, Sr.) 96 yards per average, the Coogs are rushing for 305.8 yards on the ground (seventh) while passing for 296.8 through the air (21st). With as much youth as SMU plays with defensively, Malone doesn’t have his unit blitzing very often as they’ve only sacked opposing QBs five times so far this season. The linebackers will play a ‘read-and-react’ game with maybe a few delayed blitzing with a cover-2 shell on the backside.

Stats wise this looks like the perfect game for Applewhite to get his offenses inside run game back on track. While Farrow has the aforementioned 96 yards per game average (385 yards on 74 carries), quite a few of those yards came on ‘chunk’ or broken plays in which opposing defenses have missed tackles. Herman has mentioned several times that he’s not happy with the inside zone game and the offense still needs to work out the kinks in order to be a complete offense. Backup Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) has actually impressed more than Farrow between the tackles in my opinion, behind an explosive burst that’s led to a 5 yards per carry average (146 yards on 29 carries) while tying Farrow with 2 scores. Webb just needs to learn to set up his blocks like Farrow does, but that comes with time. Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.) averages 5.6 yards per carry on his 23 totes (for 132 yards) and also has crossed the goal line twice this season as well. Applewhite has also featured wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) in the run game by handing him the ball on fly sweeps and draws as he’s averaged 10.3 yards per carry (103 yards on 10 carries).

A major key to Thursday night’s contest will be the battle between Houston’s offensive line of Zach Johnson (6’7, 315, Sr.), Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.), Josh Thomas (6’6, 315, So.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.); from left to right tackle, versus the SMU defensive front of Andrew McCleneghen (6’5, 266, Sr.), Zach Wood (6’3, 282, Sr.), Mason Gentry (6’6, 296, Sr.) and Justin Lawler (6’4, 251, So.). McCleneghen has two forced fumbles from his strong side defensive end spot while Lawler is third on the defense with 28 tackles, including 2.5 for loss while adding 2.5 sacks as well, showing his quickness (for his size) especially in chasing down running backs or receivers on the backside. Wood and Gentry have a combined 21 tackles in the middle. Reserve ends Robert Seals (6’5, 236, Sr.) and Jarvis Pruitt (6’3, 255, Jr) have a combined 5.5 tackles-for-loss. The Coogs O-line has only allowed 7 sacks on the young season. Though Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) started last week at left tackle, he played sparingly due to a sprained ankle in practice. According to Coach Herman, the depth chart remains the way it’s listed with Johnson replacing Oliver, Cooper moving back to right tackle (he played right guard the previous two games) and Thomas being inserted into the starting lineup at right guard where he’s shown a lot of potential over the past year and a half.

Once the line starts blocking up front the way Herman and offensive line coach Derek Warehime wants, and Farrow and company start going downhill, they’ll meet a Ponies’ linebacking core led by Jonathan Yenga (6’1, 224, Sr.) at the Will spot, Nick Horton (6’2, 241, Jr.) in the middle and Shakiel Randolph (6’4, 216, So.) at the “Star” spot which is a hybrid linebacker/safety. Yenga leads the D with 30 tackles despite being disqualified from the ECU game early in the first quarter due to a targeting call. Since the DQ came in the first half he’ll be eligible to play against the Coogs. Randolph has 15 tackles, 12 solo while Horton has played sparingly and only has two tackles through five games. Horton being listed as the starter on their depth chart is motivation by Malone I’m sure as the Ponies have shown bad form in tackling fundamentals so far this year and a shakeup is definitely needed. Anthony Rhone (6’0, 229, So.) started last week in the middle and is fourth with 21 tackles and an interception with Kyran Mitchell (6’0, 221, RFr.), who started at the Star spot, close behind with 20 tackles (including 2 for loss and an interception as well). As stated earlier, Malone rarely has any of his ‘backers blitzing as they are more the read-and-react type.

When Ward decides to go to the air he’s been accurate for the most part, completing 69.7-percent of his passes (83-for-119 for 1,058 yards) with 8 TDs to only 1 interception. His number one target has been Ayers, who’s averaging 94.2 yards per game (377 yards on 32 receptions with 3 TDs). Look for Applewhite to continue using Ayers in motion from his outside receiver spot to the backfield so the speedster can catch the ball off of swing passes while also being able to gain an open release off the line.

If the inside run game can be executed versus SMU, look for Ward to hit Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) deep off of play-action, something both Herman and Applewhite really want to establish but haven’t been very successful so far as Ward has not been very accurate on the deep ball. Allen is second in both receptions, 17, and yards, 210, and has one TD. Look for Ward to continue spreading the wealth in the passing game as Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) continues to refine his game, leading the offense averaging 16 yards per reception (192 yards on 12 catches with 2 scores). With Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, Sr.) taking his 6 receptions for a robust 145 yards and moving back to QB (with Adam Schultz being lost for the season), the fourth and fifth receivers need to step up to give the position more depth in case of injury or to simply rest the starters. Both Isaiah Johnson (6’4, 205, RFr.) and Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) have shown glimpses but need to be more consistent as they have 4 receptions each for 29 and 53 yards respectively. Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.) continues getting ingrained in the offense in the passing game as he has 62 yards on 7 receptions and has been solid as a blocker. Hayden Daniels (6’4, 225, Sr.) played in his first game of the season last week and caught a pass for 33 yards.

David Johnson (5’11, 196, Sr.) is the Ponies ‘cover corner’ who will probably stick to Ayers no matter where Applewhite has him on the field. Johnson has 9 tackles, 2 passes defended and an interception so far this season. Horace Richardson (6’0, 212, Jr.) is another big corner who doesn’t mind getting physical at the line of scrimmage and has 15 tackles, 2 interceptions and a pass defended. Darrion Richardson (6’0, 208, Jr.) is the leader of the secondary and second on the team in tackles with 29, while defending 4 passes and intercepting a pass. Jordan Wyatt (6’0, 192, RFr.) has 2 interceptions and passes defended from his ‘center field’ spot at strong safety. Nickel-back Jesse Montgomery (6’1, 176, So.) has an interception and a pass defended as well. SMU’s secondary knows how to play the ball as a unit as they have a combined NINE interceptions this season, tying them for seventh nationally with six other teams so Ward will have to be on-target Thursday night.

One major development in the Coogs special teams’ game is Herman opening up the competition for the field goal kicking job as Kyle Bullard (6’1, 190, Sr.) missed two makeable field goals from 40 and 44-yards at Tulsa last week. After connecting on 22-of-28 the past two seasons, Bullard is only 5-of-9 this season. Competition is always a good thing and hopefully that’s what Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) brings as he was rated one of the top kickers in the nation coming out of high school a few years ago. Punter Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) must continue pinning opponents deep in their own territory (five times he’s pinned them inside their own 20-yard line on 12 total punts), without shanking a punt as he’s wont to do at least one punt per game it seems. Houston’s coverage teams allow opponents to return punts for a 6.8 yard average (52nd) and kickoffs for 20.7 (63rd). SMU’s return teams average 6.8 yards per return on punts (83rd) and 22.6 on kickoffs (47th). For SMU, West has returned 4 punts for 32 yards and 8 kickoffs for 195 (a 24.4 average). Demarcus Ayers for Houston has only returned 4 punts for 26 yards. That 6.5 yard punt return average ranks the Coogs 87th nationally. Thanks to Brandon Wilson’s 100 yard kickoff return at Louisville a few weeks ago he’s averaging 32.3 yards per return ranking him 12th nationally. Javin Webb returned kickoffs last week and averages only 19.3 on his 3 total returns. Overall the Coogs 25.7 kickoff return average ranks them 22nd overall. Minus that 100 yard return in which Wilson should have been tackled at the 10, and the average falls to 18.9 which would rank them 98th (but as they say if my aunt had you-know-what she’d be my uncle). The Ponies allow opponents to return kickoffs for a 23 yard per average (95th) and punts at a 9.1 yard per clip (78th). True freshman Josh Williams (5’11, 178) had been the Mustangs punter through the first four games but only averaged 39.6 yards per punt so he was replaced last week by Jackson Koonce (6’1, 175, So.), who averages 44.4 on his 8 punts so far. Wake Forrest transfer Chad Hedlund (6’0, 181, Sr.) has connected on all six of his field goal attempts, but none from more than 40 yards out.

Keys to the Game

Houston needs to establish the inside run game so it can do a better job at executing inside the red zone. Coach Herman mentioned at his weekly media presser that there are many reasons on why the offense isn’t scoring TDs once they get inside the opponents 20-yard line; the offensive line needs to get a better push, the running back has to run an opposing defender over to get that extra yard and the coaches have to call better plays. Going into the Tulsa game the offense had crossed the goal line on 10-of-16 attempts once they reached the 20-yard line. Those numbers look even worse this week as they scored “7’s” only three times on six attempts this past Saturday. The other three occasions; they missed a 41-yard field goal (after taking an 8 yard sack pushing them back to the 24), made a 21-yard field goal after Ayers dropped a pass on a slant from the 4-yard line and couldn’t score all together when Webb was stuffed on fourth-and-one from inside Tulsa’s two yard line. The 59-percentage of converting only 13-of-22 red zone opportunities ranks the Coogs 72nd nationally. Defensively, SMU allows opponents to cross the goal line on 14-of-21 occasions. The 67-percent conversion rate ranks them 92nd nationally. Conversely, SMU has converted on 12-of-20 attempts, with that 60-percentage rate ranking them 69th while the Coogs D has allowed opposing offenses to convert 77-percent of the time (10-of-13), ranking them tied for 119th.

Turnovers will be another key as the Coogs rank THIRD nationally with a plus--2 turnover margin (11 forced to only 3 lost) while the Ponies rank 28th at a plus-4. Their 9 interceptions defensively have them tied for seventh nationally.

Third down will also be a point of emphasis for both coaching staffs. The Coogs convert third downs at a 49-percent clip offensively (12th) versus the Mustangs defense allowing opponents to convert 45-percent of the time (109th). Conversely the Ponies convert only 38-percent of the time on offense (78th) while the Coogs D also allows opponents to convert at a 38-percent clip (71st).

One area SMU has the advantage is penalties. The Coogs need to play more disciplined and stop committing so many penalties, especially at inopportune times (not that there’s ever a good time to commit a penalty). Their 7.25 per game rank them 84th and their 61 penalty yards rank them 77th. SMU commits 4 per game for 41 yards on average (18th and 23rd respectively).

With Herman and staff’s added emphasis on playing smarter and being more physical, I look for the Coogs to pound the ponies, wearing them down with the inside run game which opens up the passing game for Ward as he has yet another huge night on a potential sleeper run for the Heisman.

Final prediction

Houston 61 SMU 17


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