Post Game Analysis: SMU

After a sluggish start, your University of Houston Cougars dominated the SMU Mustangs in the second half for a 49-28 victory Thursday night before a nationally televised contest at TDECU Stadium, keeping first year head coach Tom Herman undefeated at 5-0 and 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference.

The victory didn’t come without cost however as three offensive linemen succumbed to injury during the game. An already gimpy Marcus Oliver left in the third quarter. He had been the starting left tackle most of the season until a lower leg injury in practice two weeks ago. He started at left guard last night with Zach Johnson at left tackle, with Alex Cooper at right tackle, Josh Thomas at right guard and Colton Freeman at center. As hard as he tried with his lower leg injury, Oliver struggled against SMU as he never really had great protection of his QB’s blindside throughout the game, leading to two of SMU’s three sacks, rarely with the help of a blitz. Even with Greg Ward Jr. throwing for 243 yards on 16-of-18 passing, he still had to pull the ball down and run too much for Herman’s liking. Though it’s difficult to complain about rushing for 84 yards on just 14 carries while crossing the goal line FOUR times like the junior signal caller did against the Ponies. With 11 touchdowns he’s tied with LSU’s Leonard Fournette for the FBS lead in rushing TDs. Ward is averaging an outstanding 110 rushing yards per game this year, adding 260 yards through the air while completing over 72-percent of his passes. If that’s not worth of Heisman trophy talk I don’t know what is.

While Oliver should be back next week at Tulane, according to the sophomore himself tweeting after the game, the prognosis doesn’t look as good for Johnson however as he had an ankle rolled on in the first half with Thomas joining him on the bench later in the game as his knee was apparently rolled up on as well. We’ll know more about their situations later this week. The game ended with Cooper at left tackle, Carter Wall at his customary left guard spot (not sure why he didn’t start), Freeman at center, redshirt freshman Mason Denley at right guard and senior Damien Parris at right tackle. Both newcomers did a nice job albeit against a weak Mustangs defensive front who probably just wanted to get out of town.

Overall the running game was dominant yet again after a slow start in which running back Kenneth Farrow didn’t see a touch in the first quarter, though he was listed as a starter. The senior and team captain while not dominating, had his way between the tackles when he was called, finishing the night with 40 yards on only 11 carries, but 3 for TDs, all in the red zone. Farrow was dominate in the blocking game conversely, lead blocking for Ward on 3 of his scores on QB sweeps. More on that in a bit.

It looks as if Ryan Jackson may have overtaken young Javin Webb for second on the depth chart behind Farrow, rushing for 53 yards on 10 carries to Webb’s 38 on 8 respectively. Herman has commented on Webb’s burst through the hole in the past and it looks as if Jackson is heeding the head coach’s words as he’s done the same the past few games as well. The senior gets in trouble when he decides to “dance” in the hole rather than make a cut and turn up field decisively. Webb has 184 yards for the season on 37 carries with Jackson’s just behind him with 181 on 4 fewer carries as this three-headed monster at running back, along with Ward’s exploits make for an offensive coordinator’s delight. Speaking of which, Major Applewhite called a nice game, keeping things simple. IE if something works, don’t deviate from it. The QB sweep with Farrow and or tight end Tyler McCloskey lead blocking has worked all year inside the 10-yard line. The offense scored SEVEN touchdowns as they were 7-for-7 in the red zone. This along with short yardage downs had been a point of emphasis according to Herman himself in the post game press conference. With the receivers doing a nice job blocking down field as well, the Coogs rushed for 214 yards on 48 carries and are averaging 288 yards per game on the ground this season, something both Herman and Applewhite have to be pleased with.

Wide receiver Demarcus Ayers continues to be Ward’s main focus in the passing game, catching 7 balls for 91 yards Thursday night, catching passes a variety of ways whether they be on fly sweep pitches, out of the backfield after motioning into the backfield, or down field on various routes as Applewhite is not allowing opponents to key in on his main receiver. With Ward only attempting 16 passes due to a dominant run game, neither Chance Allen nor Steven Dunbar contributed greatly to the win, though they both continue to do a nice job of blocking downfield as mentioned earlier. Allen had 47 yards on 3 receptions with Dunbar adding 34 yards on 2 catches himself. Ward seems to be the most accurate passing on the run and on roll outs and bootlegs, which give the speedy receivers time to get open downfield as Dunbar’s 16.1 yards-per-reception attests to. McCloskey also had a 38 yard reception on a seam route down the middle on the Coogs first possession, in which they scored for the fifth straight game.

Defensively, coordinator Todd Orlando continues to amaze me with his game planning. The defense looked lethargic to start the game, allowing SMU to gash them up front in scoring on their first two possessions and rack up 157 yards. While adding one more score (on 70 more yards) for 21 first half points, the defensive line of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux seemed to find their run fits (or lanes) to stop the ‘Pony Express’ just as the offense started to find its stride as well. Line mates Nick Thurman and Jerard Carter played well in relief as Carter added his second fumble recovery of the season. Though SMU totaled 399 yards of total offense (151 rushing), 60 of those came on their final possession of the game, or in garbage time just as Tulsa’s did last week. The overall defensive stats are more impressive than they look on paper; 24.2 points per game allowed, 98 yards rushing and 302 passing. There was more miscommunication in the secondary which allowed for some huge passing plays by the Mustangs early on, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

What impresses me the most about Orlando’s scheme is you never know where the pressure is going to come from, you just know it’s going to come from somewhere. When most offensive huddles break, the Coogs D will line up in either a 3 or 4 man front, but as the play clock winds down, linebackers and/or safeties will slowly walk their way up to the line. When the ball is snapped another linebacker or safety will come charging in on a delayed blitz with a defensive lineman falling back cutting off quick slants over the middle that appeared to be open only seconds before. Much of the blitzing is left to linebacker Steven Taylor, who will line up all over the field as Orlando won’t allow opposing offensive lines to key in on where he is (sort of like the Texans do with JJ Watt). Taylor had 3 sacks for the second consecutive game giving him an amazing 8 on the season. His 4 tackles-for-loss Thursday night give him 12 on the season, both putting him at second in the nation with games still to be played on Saturday obviously. Middle linebacker Elandon Roberts added 15 tackles against SMU and has 59 on the season (43 solo and 7 for-loss). Tyus Bowser added another sack (of the teams’ second consecutive game of five) and has 4 on the season (along with 4 TFL) himself. The outside rush backer/standup defensive end also recovered a fumble and continues to show amazing athleticism as he tackled an SMU receiver 30 yards downfield in the second half. That speed for a 240 pounder allows Orlando to drop him back when calling zone blitzes as well.

The fumble recovery was one of three turnovers forced by the “Third Ward Defense” as they have now forced 14 on the season (6 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries), led by the “Jack Boyz” or the Coogs secondary of Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald at safety and William Jackson and Brandon Wilson at corner. Their 14 turnovers forced is third nationally. McDonald recovered a fumble Thursday night and now has two on the season along with two interceptions with 33 tackles (third on the team). Stewart has recovered two fumbles himself, while adding an interception and 29 tackles (4 for loss). Bowser’s fumble recovery came off a solid hit by Wilson who had 8 tackles against SMU and has 28 on the season. Jackson added three pass breakups Thursday and has eight for the season. Lee Hightower also forced a fumble and has played solid as the nickel back this season. With as much blitzing as Orlando dials up the communication in the secondary is still lacking as they still seem to be confused when passing off receivers from one zone to another. This problem needs to be corrected as they face heavy passing offenses in Memphis and Cincinnati later in the season.

Special teams wise, nothing really stood out as Ty Cummings never had an opportunity to kick a field goal Thursday night, though he was good on all seven point-after-touchdowns. The junior recently took over for Kyle Bullard so it’ll be interesting to see how that position pans out the rest of the season. Punter Logan Piper continued his solid job on punts, averaging 42 yards on 4, and averaging 43.4 yards per on the season giving the defense solid field position to work with. Ayers returned no punts and Wilson returned one kickoff for 20 yards as the Coogs won the battle of field position most of the game.

Next up for your Coogs is a trip to the ‘The Big Easy’ to take on Tulane in another nationally televised contest, Friday October 16 at 8pm (central time) on ESPNU. Stay logged into Coogfans for my game preview early next week.

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