Game 6 Preview: Tulane

Your undefeated and 24th ranked Houston Cougars take to the Big Easy this Friday for their third conference game of the season at Tulane for another nationally televised game. Game time at Yulman Stadium is set for 8pm (CST) and will be televised on ESPNU.

The Green Wave, coached by Curtis Johnson (14-28 in his fourth season), are 2-3 and 1-1 in conference play coming off a 49-10 loss at Temple last week in which they rushed for only eight yards. In fact, in their three losses to Duke, Georgia Tech and Temple, the offense has only rushed for 123 yards, COMBINED. In their two wins versus Maine and UCF they rushed for 375 yards and scored 40 plus points in both games. In the losses, they were outscored 151 to 27. For the season they’re averaging only 22 points per game (107th nationally) while rushing for 95.8 yards per game (123rd) and passing for 208.4 (84th). Their 304.2 total yards per game rank them 123rd, out of 128 FBS level teams.

Football games are won in the trenches, and both teams are battling injuries along their offensive lines. How both teams adjust to said injuries could determine how this game is played Friday night. For the Coogs, they took a double whammy as head coach Tom Herman announced during Monday’s weekly media presser that starting tackle Zach Johnson was lost for the season as he tore just about every ligament in a knee last week versus SMU. After starting left guard Ben Dew was lost after the second game of the season, Josh Thomas is now also out after a high ankle sprain last week in which he also tore ligaments, requiring surgery per Herman. Thomas had been the unit’s sixth best linemen and had been playing at right guard after Carter Wall (6-foot-4 inches, 300 pounds, Senior) had moved to the left side. With both Johnson and Thomas joining Dew on the sidelines, the latest depth chart has Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) at left tackle with Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.) next to him at left guard. Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) remains the center while Wall shifts to right guard with Damien Parris (6’6, 315, Sr.) at right tackle. Parris played a little last season, even starting the first game and both he and Denley played well in the second half versus the Ponies. Beyond the starting five the depth really falls off a cliff as starting left tackle Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) is listed as second on the depth chart due to tweaking an ankle himself last week. Herman mentioned him getting beat in one-on-one battles a few times last week and doesn’t want him playing unless he can practice well.

As for Tulane, don’t let the low rush totals fool you, the Green Wave have a veteran offensive line but are battling injury problems of their own. Redshirt freshman, and backup center Junior Diaz (6’3, 292, RFr.) played center while regular center Nathan Shienle (6’5, 311, RJr.) shifted over to left guard when Colton Hanson (6’6, 305, RJr.) went down in the first half. Both Shienle and Hanson are back at their regular spots according to Tulane’s latest depth chart while Arturo Uzdavinis (6’7, 305, RSR.) starts at left tackle with NFL prospect Chris Taylor (6’3, 320, Jr.) at right guard and Todd Jacquet (6’5, 292, RJr.) at right tackle.

Fourth year offensive coordinator Eric Price preaches balance in his west coast offensive scheme. When you talk about multiple offenses, Price has his offense use just about every kind of set known to defensive coordinator. They’ll go with the quarterback under center with “22 personnel” (2 running backs and 2 tight ends) and the next play spread defenses from sideline to sideline with 4 wide receivers and the QB in the shotgun. They’ll use shifts and motions in order to distract the eyes of defenders and will use tempo after getting into a rhythm. Passing wise they’ll try to get their QB on rhythm early with the short quick passing game with the receivers running timed patterns but will also take shots deep off of play-action.

Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee has NFL type size (6’4, 220) and an arm to match. Entrenched as the starter this season after injuries hurriedly placed him as the man last season (starting 10 games and throwing for almost 2,000 yards with 12 TDs and 14 interceptions), the redshirt sophomore will stand tall in the pocket and has the arm strength for deep posts or outs from the opposite sideline hash. He also has decent mobility as Price will roll the pocket to have him throw on the run or off of bootlegs via play-action. His problem is consistency as the second year starter only connects on 55-percent of his passes (85-of-154), while averaging 194 yards per game with 8 TDs to 4 interceptions. While fearless from the pocket, he can be rattled from pressure and is shaky after his first read isn’t available. He’ll also throw high, low or behind his receivers quite often, allowing no YAC (yard after the catch) yardage, though he did complete 24-of-35 passes for 237 yards with 3 TDs to 1 pick last season to ruin the Cougars homecoming in a 31-24 upset.

The Houston front seven should be able to get to Lee as early hits will affect the timing of his throws later in the game as the Coogs are 13th nationally with 18 sacks, 8 coming from linebacker Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) who ranks third in the nation in both sacks with 8 (4 each in the past two games) and tackles-for-loss with 12. After allowing garbage touchdowns at Tulsa and against SMU in their final drives of the game, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit is allowing 24.2 points per game (59th). The “Third Ward Defense” allow opponents to rush for a ninth best 95.8 yards per game while passing for 302.6 (121st). Those 398.4 yards per game of total offense ranks them 75th nationally.

Tulane will rotate running backs as five have between 20 and 33 carries, led by Dontrell Hilliard (5’11, 195, So.), no relation to New Orleans Saints great Dalton Hilliard, with 33 carries for 188 yards and 2 TDs. Hilliard is shifty and has one-cut ability as his 5.7 yards per carry attests to. Lazedrick Thompson (6’0, 219, RJr.) and Rob Kelley (6’0, 220, RSr.) are listed as fullbacks but will carry the rock and are really H-backs that will line up offset in two-back formations. Thompson also has 33 carries, for 133 yards and 2 scores, while Kelley has 102 yards on 29 carries. The GreenWave’s best all around back is Sherman Baddie (5’11, 199, RSo.) who has 130 yards on only 22 carries with 2 TDs. He leads the backs with a 5.9 yards per carry average which shows his speed but he can also get the tough between the tackles yardage. Baddie is also the team’s third leading receiver with 157 yards on 13 catches (12.1 yards per reception). Josh Rounds (5’11, 201, RJr.) rounds out the unit with 20 carries for 99 yards.

The Cougars defensive line of Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) must continue to play solidly fundamentally in fear of being gashed by Tulane’s offensive line who had 83 career starts returning entering the season and blocked well last year as they had 124 yards rushing against the Coogs, led by Hilliard’s 85. “Alignment, assignment and technique” is a theme preached often as players must do their job and attack their assigned gaps instead of worrying about making every tackle. Herman mentioned this as the reason for the slow start for the rushing defense against the Ponies last week, especially concerning Taylor and middle linebacker Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.), who leads the defense in both total and solo tackles with 59 and 41 respectively, along with 7 tackles-for-loss. Taylor is second with 43 tackles along with his previously mentioned 8 sacks and 12 TFL as Orlando will line him up all over the field when blitzing. Rush backer Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) must also use his speed to pressure Lee, adding to his 4 sacks and 4 TFL this season.

While Houston is known for its world renown track-and-field program, it’s Tulane who has a 2015 American Conference long jump champion as a wide receiver, Devon Breaux (6’0, 181, RJr.), as his 17.9 yards per reception average attest to his explosiveness off the line. While Breaux is second in both catches and yards (15 for 268), Teddy Veal (6’0, 192, So.) is the leader in both with 23 receptions for 288 yards with both having 3 TDs. Trey Scott (6’2, 222, So.) is a tight end who can line up out wide as he has the athleticism of a receiver while Charles Jones (6’4, 234, So.) is the more traditional inline blocker. Both have 6 receptions with Scott having 52 yards on his to Jones’ 39.

William Jackson (6’2, 195, Sr.) and Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) at corner, with Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) at safeties along with nickel back Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) need to continue improving their communication in the Houston backfield as they’ve allowed too many receivers to go unimpeded over the intermediary and deep zones of the field far too often this season when in zone coverage. Jackson leads the team with 9 passes defended as the ‘shut down corner’ while teams continue picking on Wilson, who has had his good and bad moments. McDonald and Stewart are third and fourth on the team with 33 and 29 tackles respectively with McDonald adding 2 fumble recoveries and interceptions each. Stewart has 2 fumble recoveries, and interception and 4 TFL as Orlando continues using him as a blitzer in zone blitz looks.

Flipping the script, the Coogs offense is rolling, averaging 46.4 points per game, ranking them sixth nationally. Speaking of the balance that Johnson seeks for his team, Houston rushes for 287.2 (8th) while passing for an almost identical 286.2 (25th). Their 573.4 total yards of offense rank them sixth nationally. Tulane defensively, under fourth year coordinator and 27 year NFL player and coach Lionel Washington, allows opposing offenses to average 37.8 points per game (114th), though many of those scores have come off of bad field position due to turnovers by the offense. Washington’s 4-3 scheme allows 165 yards per game on the ground (68th) and 254.8 (97th) through the air. Those 419.8 total yards of offense per game total ranks them 94th nationally.

Meanwhile, UH QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 185, Jr.) is racking up Heisman like numbers as he’s rushing for 7 yards each time he pulls the ball down whether called or not. Ward’s 110 rushing yards per game ranks him 30th nationally, right after Alabama’s Derrick Henry and his 11 TDs rank him second nationally and first by a QB. With all the offensive line injuries, especially on the interior, it will be interesting to see how coordinator Major Applewhite calls the game as Herman has always preached toughness, which starts with running between the tackles. Even when healthy, the offensive line has had trouble establishing that inside push as Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) is averaging 85 yards per game (with 5 TDs) but with huge chunks coming off explosive plays as the Coogs ‘big back’ has worn opposing defensive lines out late in games. Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.) have had a nice battle for the backup tailback spot and are nice changes of pace to Farrow with both having 184 yards and 2 scores.

Tulane’s defensive tackles, Tanzel Smart (6’1, 303, Jr.) and Corey Redline (6’2, 328, RSr.) are run stuffers who can also penetrate gaps and cause chaos behind the line of scrimmage. Smart is the penetrator, averaging 4 tackles per game along with 6 tackles-for-loss total, with Redline adding 2 TFL and each having a sack. If they can get a push inside, it will be up to defensive ends Royce LaFrance (6’3, 259, Sr.) and Ade Aruna (6’5, 241, RSo.) to keep contain on Ward so the speedy QB doesn’t hurt the GreenWave’s defense with huge plays with his legs. LaFrance leads the defense in both tackles-for-loss and sacks with 7 and 3 and has 16 career sacks. It will be on Tulane’s linebackers to contain Ward, Farrow, Webb and Jackson as Jackson uses them aggressively with double-A gap blitzes with stunts and twists from his line up front. Will linebacker Nico Marley (5’10, 208, Jr.), grandson of the legendary Bob Marley, is a “downhill tackler” and leads the D with 36 tackles (29 solo and 4.5 for loss) while middle linebacker Eric Thomas (5’11, 243, Jr.) is right behind with 32, 26, 3.5 respectively and a sack.

When taking to the air, Ward is completing 72.5-perecent of his passes (100-for-138), ranking him SECOND nationally, while averaging 260 yards per game with 8 TDs to only 1 interception. Look for Applewhite to get the short rhythm passing game going early, especially to receiver Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) whose 93.8 yards per game ranks 22nd in the nation. While the deep passing game hasn’t gotten going yet, look for Ward to continue taking his shots, especially to Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.). The Oregon transfer is averaging 51 yards per game on 4 receptions to Dunbar’s 45 yards on almost 3 catches per game. Tulane will mix in zone but play predominately man coverage so the looks deep to the Cougar receivers may be there, if the O-line can give Ward enough time to get them the ball. Parry Nickerson (6’0, 182, RSo.) was a Freshman All American last season and is the teams shut down corner who likes to play big and physical in jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. Richard Allen (5’10, 178, Jr.) is the other corner and actually has one more pass defended than Nickerson’s 3 with 4. Darion Monroe (5’11, 206, Sr.) is a hard hitter at strong safety, with 22 tackles, 3 passes defended and 2 fumble recoveries as he always seems to be where the ball is. True freshman Roderic Teamer (5’11, 191) recently took over for Donnie Lewis (6’0, 178, RFr.) at free safety and has 11 tackles, 3 passes defended and an interception to Lewis’s 19 tackles. Nickel back Jarrod Franklin (6’1, 208, RSo.) is third on the defense with 28 tackles, 3.5 TFL, has a sack and a fumble recovery.

Both teams have undergone some changes on special teams with the Coogs replacing kicker Kyle Bullard with Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) and the GreenWave replacing punter Zachary Block (6’4, 182, Fr.) for four year starter Peter Picerelli (6’0, 194, Sr.), both for performance issues; Bullard missing field goals (four of nine) and Picerelli inexcusably dropping punts. Cummings has yet to try a field goal this year while Block punted 8 times last week for a 36.5 yard average. Andrew DiRocco (6’1, 173, So.) has connected on all four of his field goals, with all coming from between 20 and 29 yards out. The Coogs punter, Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) has done a phenomenal job punting this season averaging 43.4 yards per while dropping 5 of his 16 inside the opponents 20-yard line. That 43.4 yard punt average would have ranked Piper 35th nationally had he enough to qualify. The fact that he doesn’t is a good thing in Coogfans’ minds I’m sure.

Tulane’s return and coverage units are mediocre, as their 16.9 kick return average ranks them 118th nationally behind Badie’s 21.7 average on 6 returns. The Coogs coverage units allow only 19.9 yards per kickoff return, ranking them 51st. Meanwhile behind Wilson’s 30.8 average, the Coogs 25.2 yards per return rank them 25th. The GreenWave conversely allow a whopping 29.6 yards per kickoff return, good for second to last nationally behind only Texas State. Neither team is great at returning punts with Tulane averaging 4.5 (87) to the Coogs 6.5 (106). Ayers has only returned 4 punts so far this season, with the rest being fair caught. For Tulane Monroe has 3 returns for 10 yards with Veal returning his lone punt for 8 yards. The Coogs punt coverage unit allows 6 yards per return while the GreenWave’s allow 10.7. The key difference in special teams is that Herman plays a lot of his starters on special teams while Johnson plays mostly younger players, as he doesn’t have the depth to lose them to the violent return games. 

Keys to the game

Turnovers and red zone efficiency. Under Johnson, the Green Wave have forced 99 turnovers in his 42 games. The “Third Ward Defense” meanwhile has forced 114 over the same span and are FIRST in the nation this year in turnover margin at a plus-2 (14 forced to only 4 lost). The Green Wave have scored 38 points off their 7 turnovers forced the past 2 games after scoring no points on the 5 forced over their first 2 games of the season.

The Coogs did a fantastic job last week in scoring “7’s” in the red zone last week, crossing the goal line all seven times, using Ward in the QB run game off of sweeps with Farrow and McCloskey lead blocking for him as the Coogs are now 27th nationally in putting up TDs on 20-of-29 opportunities once in the red zone. Tulane is right behind Houston converting on nearly 67-percent of RZ chances (33rd) but have only 12 tries, 8 of which have been successful as they haven’t moved up and down the field as often as the Coogs have.

Final Prediction

Despite the injury woes up front, the Coogs still have the talent edge and will control the game in the trenches with Tulane having no answer for Ward, while Orlando’s defense pummels Tulane’s QB to the tune of a 56-21 final score.




















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