Game 8 Preview: Vanderbilt

As one of the surprising stories of this college football season, your undefeated (7-0, 4-0 in American Athletic Conference play) and 18th ranked Houston Cougars look to continue their momentum as they return home for a primetime Halloween affair this Saturday (October 31st) as they host the Vanderbilt Commodores of the Southeastern Conference. Kickoff at TDECU Stadium is set for 6pm (CST) and will be televised by ESPN2.

Football is a simple sport. The team that dominates in the trenches and controls the line of scrimmage is usually going to win. With that I’ll start this article talking about the Coogs offensive line, which has played remarkable this season despite injury after injury, after injury. The week one starting offensive line of Marcus Oliver (6-foot, 3 inches, 295 pounds, Sophomore), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Sr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.), Carter Wall (6’4, 300,Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) from left to right tackle wasn’t a very experienced one entering the season with only 24 career starts (with only Dew and Cooper returning as starters). Unfortunately that experience became even less-so when Dew went down with a foot injury during the second game of the season, forcing Wall to move from right to left guard, Cooper moving from right tackle to right guard with Zach Johnson (6’7, 315, Sr.) taking the snaps at right tackle. Three games later Johnson was lost for the season with a knee injury, this a year after he was lost last year after injuring a knee during fall camp. With Johnson and Oliver out (ankle injury that’s limited him the past two games), Cooper has moved from right guard to left tackle with Wall moving to right tackle and Freeman moving from center to right guard to make room for true freshman Will Noble (6’4, 290). The sixth best linemen was also lost for the season when Josh Thomas (6’6, 315, So.) went down with an ankle injury versus SMU three games ago, with redshirt freshman Mason Denley (6’4, 305) taking his spot at left guard. For those keeping score, that’s three starters (Dew, Johnson and Thomas), lost to injuries for the year and one still gimping around on a bad ankle (Oliver). Whether or not Oliver will return versus Vandy is unknown at this time. Wall missed some time against SMU with a stomach ailment and Damien Parris (6’6, 315, Sr.) has also contributed, starting at right tackle two weeks ago at Tulane. True freshman Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290) was moved from the defensive to the offensive line for depth purposes and has seen time on the interior at guard as well in limited snaps. Saturday’s line of Cooper, Denley, Noble, Freeman and Wall will be the Coogs fifth of the season.

Houston head coach Tom Herman had said during his post-game press conference after the UCF game that he liked the Noble, Freeman combo inside with Wall continuing to play right tackle with Parris coming off the bench. Cooper on how the line has performed this season despite injuries under offensive line coach Derek Warehime (via, “When we were at practice coach would say Coop you go to right guard, or Carter Wall you go to left tackle, and then you smirk for a little while and realize he’s being serious. This can actually happen. We get down to week six, and we are missing our starting tackle and starting left guard. We have to put the pieces together and get our best 5 guys on the field, so it is huge to be interchangeable like that. I feel like at this point everyone is comfortable with playing at least two different positions.”

The Commodores invade TDECU under second year head coach Derek Mason (6-13), who’s coming off his first career SEC win last week in a 10-3 win versus Missouri. Vanderbilt (3-4, 1-3 this year) has SEC level talent, especially up front along both lines as this will be the biggest challenge the Coogs have faced this season in the trenches. Vandy has lost 7 of Mason’s 11 SEC contests by an average of only 10 points-per-game, usually with opponents pulling away late against the over-matched school from Nashville, Tennessee.

Though out-talented in terms of SEC competition, over the past five seasons Vandy has had top-50 recruiting classes four times, highlighted by the 2013 class (which ranked 19th overall according to Scout’s rankings), including signing four 4-star prospects (whom we’ll highlight later). The only exception to those top-50 classes was the 2015 class, which was Mason’s first full class after being hired in January of 2014 after three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Stanford. Mason also coached defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings from 2007 through 09. He first started as an assistant coach in 1994 at Mesa Community College, with stops at Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico State, Ohio University, Minnesota and Stanford after a four year playing career at Northern Arizona.

Though Mason also coached wide receivers at Utah during the 2012 season, his bones are on the defensive side of the football, graduating from Northern Arizona in 1993 after starting the last two years at cornerback. Acting as his own defensive coordinator, his philosophy is simple; create havoc at the line of scrimmage via the blitz. He wants to pressure opposing quarterbacks from different angles whether it be from the zone blitz in his 3-4 scheme, or bringing safeties or a corner blitz. For the season the Commodores allow only 16.3 points-per-game, ranking them 13th nationally. Against the run they allow 154.7 yards-per-game (56th) and 236.9 through the air (85th). Overall they allow 391.6 yards on average, good for 67th nationally. What makes the Commodores so effective is they get off the field on third-down, allowing opposing offenses to convert on only 22.4-percent of their opportunities (3rd nationally) and in the red zone, where opponents have crossed the goal line only 8 times in 23 trips (5th).

In this matchup of the “immovable object meeting the irresistible force,” Houston’s offense converts third downs at a 50.9-percent clip (ranking them 4th nationally) while scoring touchdowns 27 times in 38 trips inside opponents red zones (17th). After crossing the goal line on only 13-of-22 opportunities their first four games, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite’s unit has scored 7’s instead of 3’s an amazing 14 times in their last 16 trips over the past three games. The only two times they didn’t score a TD was at the end of the Tulane game as they too a knee to end the game, and a 34-yard field goal as time expired to end the first half at UCF last week after a ‘sudden change’ (an interception). So in reality, the offense has converted on their last 14 trips inside the red zone, led by Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 185, Jr.) and the QB sweep. On those 14 conversions, Ward has scored a TD via the sweep 7 times, usually with bruising running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) and/or tight end Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.) acting as lead blocker. The Coogs average 47.6 points-per-game (4th) while rushing for 291.7 yards-per-game (7th) and passing for 269.4 (30th) for an overall average of 561.1 yards (5th).

Herman mentioned Farrow having his best game of the season in last week’s 59-10 win at UCF with 164 yards on only 13 carries, behind holes opened up on the interior by the aforementioned Noble/Wall combo at center and right guard. The Ward/Farrow combo via the zone read option was also money versus the Knights as they had to shade Ward outside, opening up the holes inside to allow Farrow and his fellow backs to gallop through as the game progresses. For the season Farrow is averaging 95.6 yards-per-game, just a tad behind Ward’s 96.7, though Ward averages 6.6 yards-per-carry to Farrow’s 6. Ward also leads all QB’s with 15 TD’s rushing and is tied for third nationally (with LSU’s Leonard Fournette), while Farrow has 8 TD’s himself. Farrow left the UCF game with a possible concussion but Herman mentioned yesterday that he should be good to go for Vandy. If the big bruiser can’t go it’ll be a big loss as the Coogs MO this season has been to wear opposing defenses out with the inside run game as the game progresses. Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.) and Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) have contributed nicely behind Farrow, averaging 41 and 30 yards-per-game respectively.

The Coogs offensive line will have their toughest game yet with the Commodore’s defensive front of Adam Butler (6’5, 305, RJr.), Jay Woods (6’3, 285, RSo.) and either Caleb Azubike (6’4, 265, Sr.) or Jonathan Wynn (6’5, 260, RSo.) starting up front with Torey Agee (6’4, 285, RJr.) and Nifae Lealao (6’5, 315, So.) in reserve in their odd numbered three man fronts. In their four man fronts, outside linebackers Nehemiah Mitchell (6’4, 260, Jr.) or Stephen Weatherly (6’5, 250, RJr.) will put their hand on the ground or stand in order to confuse the offensive line. Woods, despite being on the light side for the nose, is one of the four-star prospects of that 2013 class that can get penetration to disrupt the inside zone game the Coogs want to employ. Butler leads the down linemen with 6 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks, with Weatherly adding 5 and 2 respectively. Landon Stokes (6’4, 240, RSo.) and Josh Smith (6’3, 236, Fr.) are two other young outside linebackers to keep an eye on as Stokes registered his first sack last week, while Smith is another 4-star prospect signed this past spring. Mason will use different pressure packages to put his linemen in one-one-one pass rush situations via twists and stunts as well.

The down-linemen for Vandy want to funnel everything to their two inside linebackers, Zach Cunningham (6’4, 230, RSo.) and Darreon Herring (6’2, 230, Sr.), who lead the defense in tackles with 50 and 35 respectively. Cunningham (another 4-star out of that 2013 class) leads the D with 8 TFL while adding 2 sacks and 3 passes defended as he’s nimble enough to cover the intermediary portion of the field in Mason’s zone blitz looks. Though the Commodores have done a nice job at moving the QB off of his spot, they haven’t brought him down as much as Mason would like as they have only 15 sacks this season (tied for 62nd), while the Coogs O-line has allowed only 14 sacks (tied for 59th) despite the patchwork lineups.

Offensively for Houston, I’m sure Applewhite will test Vandy’s interior run defense early but will also have Ward throwing using the quick, short passing game. For the season Ward has completed 71.4-percent of his passes (3rd nationally) while averaging 247.6 yards passing per game with 10 TDs to only 2 picks. Vandy’s secondary will challenge Houston’s receivers physically as they play predominately man coverage but will disguise cover-1 and 2 zone looks as well in order to confuse Ward. Mason will force Ward to beat him deep, which the junior signal caller has had in moderate success this season, mainly off of deep posts to outside receiver Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.). The former Oregon transfer has 2 TDs and is second on the team in receptions, 28, and yards, 356 to Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) who has 50 receptions for 653 yards and 4 TDs. Applewhite will line Ayers up all over the field, often motioning him either into or out of the backfield so defensive backs can’t jam him at the line of scrimmage. Ayers also averages almost a first down (9.8 yards) each time he rushes (12 attempts). The third receiver in their 3-wide sets who probably has the most potential is true sophomore Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210), but as with all younger players he’s too inconsistent. Dunbar has 19 receptions for 272 yards with 2 scores while leading the receivers in YAC (yards after the catch) with 14.3 yards-per-reception. Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) is starting to establish himself as the fourth receiver with 9 receptions for 124 yards with 2 TDs. McCloskey has been used as more of a blocker from his tight end spot, but also has 9 receptions (for 104) yards and can be used particularly effective on the seam route down the middle off of play-action if dialed up at the right time.

The Commodores secondary is big and physical as mentioned and will try to intimidate the smaller Cougar receivers, especially over the middle, led by free safety Oren Burks (6’3, 215, RSo.) and corner Torren McGaster (6’1, 200, RJr.). Burks leads the unit with 35 tackles, and has 7 passes defended, an interception and a fumble forced and recovered. McGaster has 8 passes defended and forced a fumble as their ‘cover corner.’ Tre Herndon (6’0, 185, So.) is the opposite corner and shares time with Tre Bell (5’11, 178, So.) and Taurean Ferguson (5’9, 185, RSo.). Shots downfield are available against the smaller corners though Ferguson does have 4 passes defended and Mason will send Bell and Herndon on corner blitzes. Andrew Williamson (6’1, 212, Sr.) is a physical, hard hitting strong safety who has 18 tackles despite playing with a cast on his arm. Ryan White (5’9, 190, RSo.), another 4-star from the 2013 class, has been splitting time with Williamson; adding 20 tackles (including 3 for loss), a forced and recovered fumble. Arnold Tarpley (6’0, 202, So.) has 2 passes defended, 2 TFL and a sack from his nickel back spot. Vanderbilt’s secondary, and defense as a whole, also tackles very well in space.

The Commodores are a pedestrian offense as only 8 teams (out of 128) average less than the 18 points-per-game Vandy scores. They average 158.3 yards-per-game on the ground (82nd) while throwing for 227.1 (68th) for an overall average of 385.4 (81st). A huge reason for the low numbers offensively is the play of the QB position, forcing first year coordinator Andy Ludwig‘s hand. After dual threat signal caller Johnny McCrary (6’4, 220, RSo.) started 11 straight games over the past 2 seasons, true freshman Kyle Shurmur (6’4, 225) started in last week’s game against Mizzou with less than modest results; completing 50-percent of his passes (10-for-20) for a meager 89 yards, though they did win (10-3) which is the most important. While he didn’t throw a TD, Shurmur (son of Philadelphia Eagles OC and former Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur) didn’t throw an interception either. Shurmur threw for nearly five thousand yards and 53 TD’s the past two seasons at Philadelphia’s LaSalle High school.

Shurmur wants his QBs to manage the game, which means not turning the ball over which was the main reason why McCrary was benched as he’s tossed 11 interceptions (to just 6 TDs) while averaging only 210 yards passing-per-game so far this season. McCrary has 15 career TDs to 19 interceptions. Though he has a strong arm, it’s not necessarily accurate as McCrary has completed 57-percent of his passes after completing 51-percent last season. McCrary did play a few series against Mizzou, including the last few, and completed 7-of-8 passes for 47 yards so who starts, and more importantly, who plays more will remain a mystery until the game unfolds.

Ludwig runs a pro-style offense known for its multiplicity. He’ll have his QB take snaps from under center, with “22 personnel” (2 running backs, 2 tight ends) on one play, and “10 personnel” (4 wide receivers, 1 running back) with the QB taking snaps from the shotgun on the next. Ludwig, like Mason (Herman and Applewhite for that matter), believes in old-school power football. Not coincidentally, Ludwig was the OC at Wisconsin for the past two seasons. While employing the QB run game via the option (with McCrary), Ludwig is probably more in his element with Shurmur as the true freshman is more of a pocket-passer who will stand tall in the pocket and has a rocket for an arm, which is perfect for the play-action deep passing game. While not exactly the definition of a dual threat QB, Shurmur has enough mobility to move around in the pocket and Ludwig will even have him throwing on the run, particularly off bootlegs.

In the run game Ludwig will use shifts and motions, particularly from his tight ends, to create extra gaps which the defense has to account for. Vandy will even line up in a basic pro set I-formation, using the old “lead Iso” play that has a fullback lead blocking for a running back, which is an easy call when you have a Ralph Webb (5’10, 202, RSo.) taking hand-offs from your QB. Webb is a physical downhill runner who averages 85 yards-per-game on the ground on 150 carries (with 4 TDs). He’s also probably the fastest player on the team as he’s third with 20 receptions for another 172 yards with 2 scores. Darrius Sims (5’9, 188, Jr.) is the change-of-pace back and has 204 yards on only 22 carries as Ludwig wants to get him more touches as his 9.3 yards-per-rush would indicate. Sims is also a nice threat out of the backfield (110 yards on 10 receptions), particularly on the wheel route as it’s almost impossible for a linebacker to cover him one-on-one. Dallas Rivers (6’1, 224, So.) is used in short yardage situations and also as a fullback and only averages 2.1 yards-per-rush on 41 attempts. Josh Crawford (5’10, 200) is another talented true freshman who they also want to touch the ball more as he has only 39 yards on 11 carries. Ladarius Banks (6’2, 255, RJr.) is another bulldozer brought in at fullback.

Up front for Vandy, the offensive line is very experienced as they brought a combined 90 starts before the season began, led Spencer Pulley (6’4, 300, Sr.) at center and Jake Bernstein (6’4, 310, Sr.) at left guard, both with 36 career starts. Left tackle is occupied by Will Holden (6’7, 312, RJr.) who started 10 games at right tackle last season as a first year starter. Along the right side is Barrett Gouger (6’4, 308, RJr.) at right guard and Blake Fromang (6’7, 305, RJr.) at right tackle as first year starters. The unit has allowed only 12 sacks, tying them for 44th nationally.

The Cougars defensive line will have to do a good job of shedding blocks and not getting eaten up by the mammoth Vandy O-line and their combo man/zone blocking schemes, which would allow their linebackers to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The “Third Ward Defense” holds opponents to only 19.7 points-per-game (28th) while ranked 9th in run defense, allowing only 98.3 rushing yards-per-game. Through the air they’ve struggled with communication issues mainly, allowing 263.7 yards-per-game (104th). Overall, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit allows 362 yards-per-game (43rd).

The nation’s ninth best rush defense is led up front by starters Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) with Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, Jr.) and youngsters Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) and Zack Vaughn (6’4, 270, RFr.) in reserve. Like Vandy, Houston’s line isn’t going to accumulate pretty stats as Malveaux leads in both TFL and sacks with only 3.5 and 1.5 respectively, but it’s their job to eat up blocks which allows the linebackers and safeties behind them to make plays, which they certainly do, led by linebackers Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) inside and Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) outside. Roberts hits like a freight train and runs like a gazelle as he’s tied for first nationally with 56 solo tackles and 12th in total tackles-per-game averaging almost 11 per. Taylor meanwhile, is sixth nationally with 8 sacks and eighth with 13 TFL as Orlando lines him up all over the field and will bring him via a delayed blitz either up the middle or off the edge. Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) has 4 TFL and sacks each as the outside rush backer and Mathew Adams (6’0, 230, So.) flashed his quickness last week with his first sack of the season. After accumulating 40 tackles last season, Adams has only 8 this year as he’s taken out when Orlando uses his nickel package.

If Vandy wants to win this game, their wide receivers are going to have to help the QB by simply making the easy plays, or not dropping passes, which the unit as a whole has really struggled with this season. Their leading receiver is Trent Sherfield (6’0, 200, So.), a converted corner out of high school who had only one catch last season, who has 41 receptions for 518 yards and 2 TDs. Caleb Scott (6’1, 195, So.) and Latevius Rayford (6’1, 198, Jr.) have 18 and 14 receptions for 187 and 93 yards respectively. Though they do a fine job of blocking downfield in the run game, all three receivers need to become playmakers, especially in YAC yards. Steven Scheu (6’5, 245, Sr.) is a huge target as a tight end and is the second leading pass catcher with 21 for 202 yards. Nathan Marcus (6’5, 240, RSo.) is used in the many two-tight end sets but mainly as a blocker. The Coogs linebackers and safeties have had troubles keeping up with athletic tight ends over the middle of the field when in zone coverage and especially when employing the zone blitz in which Bowser is usually responsible for the TE in coverage. DeAndre Woods (6’3, 235, RSo.) hasn’t seen much action but is a converted wide receiver and has a 43-yard reception to his credit, which Ludwig may want to duplicate off of play-action.

The Coogs secondary has been susceptible to the quick bubble screens or inside slants when playing off-coverage which Orlando has them in often. William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.) is one corner that Orlando doesn’t have to worry about as he’ll often put Jackson on that island in man coverage, and the results haven’t disappointed as Jackson is fourth in the nation with 15 passes defended while adding 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) at the other corner spot hasn’t been as lucky however as he’s picked on constantly. Wilson is a physical corner who’s fifth on the defense with 37 tackles, including 2 for-loss and is very opportunistic as he had an 85-yard fumble return for a TD last week at UCF. Wilson can be a liability in coverage as he’ll too often go for the big play (strip or a huge hit) while not making the tackle. Safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) epitomize the big play as the leaders of the “Jack Boyz” have a forced a combined 8 turnovers this year (2 fumble recoveries each with McDonald adding 3 interceptions to Stewart’s 1). They are also third and fourth on the team in tackles as McDonald has 45 to Stewart’s 38. Stewart is more of an in-the-box safety as he’s used in blitzes and has 6 TFL and 3 sacks.

Special teams for Vandy haven’t been that special. They average 20.9 yards per kickoff return (73rd) behind Sims 21.3 and 8.1 yards per-punt-return (67th) with White averaging 10.2 on 12 returns. The Coogs coverage units are decent on kickoff returns, allowing 20.3 yards-per-return (50th) while allowing only 5 yards-per-punt-return (29th). Herman mentioned playing more younger players on special teams as he feels he may be starting to wear his starters down as they play more snaps, so this could be something to keep an eye on Saturday night.

The Coogs return teams have been up-and-down this season with Ayers putting on a clinic at Tulane a few weeks ago with 175 yards on 8 punt returns including an electric 73-yard return for a TD. Minus that Tulane game and Ayers has only 24 yards on 7 returns, or barely over 3 yards-per-return. Herman also mentioned that the return games were more about Ayers teammates’ doing a better job blocking so he wouldn’t have to fair catch every punt. The kickoff returns for Houston are also inconsistent because of the decision making of Wilson. His 100-yard return at Louisville during the second game of the season should not have been brought out of the endzone as missed tackles were the only reason why it wasn’t just a 10-yard gain. Minus that return and Wilson is averaging 20 yards-per-return instead of the 26.9 he currently averages. Vandy’s kickoff return unit gets down field fast as they allow opposing returners only 16.2 yards-per-return (9th) but 11.3 on punt returns (98th).

Tommy Openshaw (6’2, 185, RSo.) is both Vanderbilt’s punter and place kicker and averages 41.8 yards-per-punt, but 15 of his 36 punts have been placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Openshaw is only 12-of-19 on field goal attempts, missing 4 from 40-yards out. Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) averages 41.8 yards on his 27 punts with 10 being placed inside the opponent’s 20. Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) hit his first field goal of his career last week (from 34 yards) after winning the job from incumbent Kyle Bullard (6’1, 190, Sr.) after missing 3 of 5 attempts.

Keys to the Game

Both teams need to get off to a fast start as both struggle in the first quarter. Vandy has only scored NINE points in the first quarter all season long (allowing 23) while Houston has only outscored its opponents by 15 points (63 to 48). If the Cougars got out to a two-touchdown lead early on it could do two things; 1.) Get the crowd into the game, which is expected to be a sell-out as “Black Out” is being promoted, and 2.) Force the Commodores to abandon their run game (though it will probably take more than just a two touchdown deficient for Ludwig to abandon the run game, especially early in the game).

Another key will be turnover margin. The Coogs lead the nation with a plus-13 (forcing 18 turnovers to only committing 5), while the Commodores are at a negative-9 (turning the ball over 17 times offensively to forcing only 8). Vandy wants to control the clock offensively as they are 8th nationally in time of possession at 33-minutes, 41-seconds. Turnovers and failing to convert on third-down won’t allow them to keep the chains moving, keeping UH’s high powered offense off the field.

Red zone efficiency will be key if this ends up a close game. As previously stated, who wins the battle of the nation’s 5th ranked red zone defense versus the 17th offensively? In a close game, 7’s versus 3’s could determine the outcome.

How do the Coogs handle being down early against what may be a more talented team? Herman mentioned during his post-game presser at UCF that his team trains for adversity by “avoiding the primal human instinct to panic once adversity hits by taking a deep breath, focusing on the next play, going back to fundamentals and giving a fanatical effort with a driven purpose for the guy next to you.” His team was able to overcome early deficits over the past few games against AAC competition. How will they react if punched in the mouth early versus an SEC foe?

Final Prediction

Behind the running of Farrow and Ward, and an opportunistic D that forces a few turnovers (shortening the field for the offense), the Coogs take an early lead firing up a raucous Houston crowd. Vandy won’t have enough firepower to keep up as they get worn down, faltering late to lose 31-14. 

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