At the half-way point of the season the Coogs are the only team in the nation in the top-10 in both rush defense (98.5 yards allowed per game) and rush offense (279.2), though both the defensive and offensive lines are doing it in different ways. The patchwork offensive line of Alex Cooper, Carter Wall, Colton Freeman, Mason Denley and Damien Parris (from left to right tackle) are still having troubles establishing a push up front, especially in trying to establish the inside run game that head coach Tom Herman and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite would like to base their offense off of. Kenneth Farrow rushed for 77 yards on 14 carries Friday night but 31 of those came on one play off tackle in the third quarter. The burly 220 pounder is averaging 83 yards per game and over 5 yards per carry but the run game seems to be lacking inside the tackles. Farrow and the other running backs always have at least one huge run to pad their stats, usually in the second half which is a credit to the offense line (and line coach Derek Warehime) in wearing opposing defensive lines down over the course of a game. Ryan Jackson ran decently, finishing with 34 yards on 8 carries. For whatever reason Javin Webb didn’t see any action though he had been running second team with Jackson earlier in the season. Kaliq Kokuma finished the game, running for an impressive 43 yards on 5 carries.
Marcus Oliver played late despite a gimpy ankle and Will Noble played the second half for Freeman, who apparently left with a case of the stomach flu. True freshman Kameron Eloph also played inside as Warehime needs to establish depth with all the injuries. Hopefully Oliver gets back in the lineup next week at his regular left tackle spot.
It’s also nice to have a quarterback who I think should be in Heisman Trophy contender talk in Greg Ward Jr. that can turn a bad play into a great one with his legs. The Tyler, Texas product is the only QB in the nation averaging more than 200 yards passing per game (254) and 100 rushing (105) after yet another solid performance against the Green Wave, completing 17-of-25 passes for 222 yards with a TD while adding 77 yards on 14 carries and 3 more TDs giving him an FBS lead 14 on the ground (to go with his 9 through the air). He also tossed an interception but it was only his second and first since the Louisville contest, four games ago. His 71.8-percent passing completion percentage (117-for-163) will also be in the top-5 once the NCAA releases its stats after games are completed Saturday night.
What impresses me the most about the offense is how Applewhite calls a game, always keeping the defense guessing on what’s coming next, especially how receiver Demarcus Ayers is used. The speedy junior had his best all around game as he caught 6 passes for 91 yards, rushed twice for 15 including a beautifully executed 15-yard end-around off of a QB sweep, and had his best game in the return games, returning 8 punts for 175 yards (one for a score on a 75-yard scamper late in the third). If not for two penalties he might have had 86 more yards on two returns, one for 66 yards which would have gone for yet another TD. Coming into the game Ayers had only returned 4 punts for 23 yards. Applewhite establishes the run game via the inside zone but really hurts opposing defenses with the QB run game, whether it be off the zone read, speed option, draws or my favorite; the QB sweep, which has especially been effective in the red zone. Out of the last twelve red zone possessions, Ward has scored on a sweep with Farrow and tight end Tyler McCloskey lead blocking for him. The offense has scored a touchdown on 24-of-34 red zone possessions. The 71-percent red zone conversion rate should rank them in the top-25 once stats come out on Sunday. The QB sweeps and run game can’t work without the the wide receiver trio of Chance Allen, Steven Dunbar and Ayers as they’ve done a great job blocking on the perimeter all season, allowing Ward to gain huge yards once he pulls the ball down.
Once the run game is established the passing game opens up mainly off of play-action, though Applewhite threw Tulane a changeup Friday night with Ward completing a deep post to Allen for a 51-yard score on the offense’s first play from scrimmage. The deep passing game has been a problem for most of the season as Applewhite loves taking deep shots to loosen up the defense. Even on their connection, Ward under threw the ball just a tad which might have led to an interception or a pass breakup if not for the Green Wave corner falling. Allen had 3 receptions for 69 yards with Dunbar adding 4 and 40 respectively as they continue to compliment Ayers.
Defensively, coordinator Todd Orlando, much like his counterpart on offense, continues to call an aggressive game, calling more and more blitzes as the game progresses. Friday night, linebackers Steven Taylor and Elandon Roberts came after Tulane’s backup QB’s in waves, finishing the game with 12 tackles (9 for Roberts), though Taylor came close to tackles-for-loss numerous times and is still top-5 nationally in both TFL and sacks with 13 and 8 respectively.
This game defensively was won along the defensive line as the front of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux all took turns in fighting off blocks to make stops at or near the line of scrimmage as Tulane couldn’t establish the run game they needed to help out their young QBs. Nick Thurman, Zack Vaughn, Jerard Carter and D’Juan Hines continue giving quality snaps behind the starters allowing them to rest. Tulane only rushed for 112 yards Friday night, with 44 of those coming off of a fake punt. The Green Wave completed 14-of-33 passes for 150 yards with 51 of those coming on one play late. Subtract the 51 and 44 yard plays and Tulane only had 167 yards of total offense.
The secondary of William Jackson and Brandon Williams at corner, with Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald at safety along with nickel back Lee Hightower came to play as they laid the wood in the secondary with numerous hard hits on Tulane wide receivers, causing a handful of drops via ‘alligator arms.’ Though the “Jack Boyz” created no turnovers they almost intercepted two Tulane passes on jumped routes (by Jackson and Stewart).
Special teams play was stellar in all phases of the game which had to make coordinator Jason Washington a happy man. Ayers finally used his stop-on-a-dime ability and shiftiness to his advantage in the punt return game. Williams returned his only kickoff for 31 yards and Tulane never started beyond their 34-yard line behind the kicking of Ty Cummings and punting of Logan Piper.
On the negative side, the Coogs continue to kill themselves with penalties in all three phases of the game. Holding calls, bad snaps and false starts continue to plague the offensive line. Blocks in the back negated two great punt returns by Ayers and late hits and pass interference calls have allowed opposing defenses to continue scoring drives all season long, all of which happened against the Green Wave Friday night. The defense also needs to do a better overall job in tackling in space.
After a perfect 6-0 start this becomes a six game season to determine whether this team becomes a conference champion and a potential Access Bowl participant, or just a good team that couldn’t win when the competition amped up. The first six opponents have a combined 11-16 (not including losses to the Coogs). The next six are 17-16. Next week the Coogs take to the road to Orlando to play UCF in another nationally televised game. The Golden Knights are struggling at 0-6 this season as graduation and injuries have really put them in a tail spin, but no team coached by George O’Leary can be taken lightly. The term “trap game” would haunt this team in the past. Under the leadership of Herman I don’t think this will be the case any longer. Stay logged into Coogfans.com for our UCF game preview later in the week.