Post Game Analysis: Vanderbilt

In their best all around performance of the season, your undefeated Houston Cougars (8-0, 4-0 in American Athletic conference play) imposed their will in all three phases of the game from kickoff until the clock hit triple-zeroes in a dominating 34-0 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores Saturday night at TDECU Stadium before a nationally televised ESPN2 audience.

While outgaining the Commodores 371 yards to 185 in total offense, the Cougars were able to control both lines of scrimmage throughout and played solid special teams, giving the offensive unit great starting field position. Houston’s offense started around midfield or in Vanderbilt’s territory on six of their thirteen possessions with their average starting field position at their own 43-yard line.

With such operating room allowing the entire play book to be open, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite put the game in the hands of quarterback Greg Ward Jr, and the veteran signal caller didn’t disappoint as he completed 15-of-23 passes for 221 yards with a touchdown on a beautifully thrown corner route to wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (59 yards on 5 receptions). Ward had his worst running game as a starter with 33 yards on 19 carries as Vanderbilt was determined to keep him in the box, not allowing him to beat them with his legs. The Commodores came into the game ranked sixteenth nationally allowing only 109 yards on the ground through their first seven games.

As Houston head coach Tom Herman said during his post-game media press conference of Ward’s play (via, “They (Vanderbilt’s defense) do a really good job when the offense looks to the sideline, they check their defense. So we couldn't rely on a lot of the things that we do, in terms of looking to the sideline and letting Major call the right play. We put a lot on (Ward) in terms of two or three play checks to get us in the right play, and he did a phenomenal job of that. If I had to put a number on it, somewhere he was around 90-percent on getting us into the right play."

Ward did add to his national lead with his sixteenth rushing TD of the season on a five yard score on a zone-read keeper for the first score of the game. Ward is so dynamic with his legs that even if he doesn’t have a great game his influence alone helps to open up lanes for his teammates. This was the case with Kenneth Farrow’s 15-yard TD run for the final score of the game on an inside run off the zone read option when a lane opened up as a Vandy linebacker cheated outside to stop Ward on his fake keeper. Running backs Javin Webb and Ryan Jackson combined for 31 yards on 13 carries with Ayers adding another 3 on 3 carries himself.

With the interior run game shut down most of the evening, as the Coogs ran for “only” 150 yards on 51 attempts with Farrow going for 82 on 16 carries with 37 yards coming on two runs alone, it was up to Ward to beat the Commodores from the pocket, which he did most of the night. With Vandy doing probably the best job of any Houston opponent of containing Ayers (as mentioned with only 59 yards receiving despite entering the game averaging over 90), it was on other receivers to step up, namely Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar. Allen once again caught a deep post from Ward early on, for 52 yards setting up a field goal and a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Allen had 95 yards on 3 receptions with that bomb downfield opening up the intermediate portion of the field for Dunbar, who had 31 yards on 3 receptions himself. Isaiah Johnson had 2 receptions for 14 yards as he and Linell Bonner (who didn’t register a reception) continue to battle it out for the fourth receiver spot. John Leday caught his first pass in two years (for eight yards) and Jackson had a 14-yard reception on a nicely called slip-screen by Applewhite.

While I didn’t expect the Coogs offensive line to dominate up front against a somewhat stout Vandy defensive front-seven, what I surely didn’t expect was for the unit to do play the way they did while playing not one but TWO true freshmen (Will Noble at center and Kameron Eloph at right guard) and a redshirt freshman (Mason Denley at left guard), along with seniors Alex Cooper and Carter Wall at left and right tackle respectively. The line performed so well (despite allowing three sacks) that I hadn’t even noticed Colton Freeman missing his first start of the season (with a stinger suffered last week at UCF) until reading Coach Herman’s press conference quotes after the game. Freeman, a redshirt freshman himself, began the season as the starting center and switched to right guard after a plethora of offensive linemen went down for the season. The unit lost starters Ben Dew (left guard) during the second game of the season at Louisville, Zach Johnson (starts at both tackle spots) and Josh Thomas (right guard) for the season three games ago versus SMU. Starting left tackle Marcus Oliver has played sparingly, if at all, in reserve the past few games because of a gimpy ankle. Eloph was playing defensive line just a few weeks ago. Tight end Tyler McCloskey also deserves a lot of credit for his blocking, especially on the perimeter on outside zone runs and the wide receivers are always blocking down field as well. Offensive line coach Derek Warehime is the coach who’s probably doing perhaps the best overall teaching job on the entire staff with what he has to work with. Also give major credit to both Herman and Applewhite to incorporate a scheme that realizes the young offensive line can’t hold up at the point of attack for an extended period of time, so they get the ball out of Ward’s hands early on passes and implement a lot of misdirection to confuse defenses.

Defensively, the “Third Ward Defense” simply did what they’ve been doing all season; forcing turnovers (four) which gives the offense great field position for easy scores. Once the team has the lead, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando unleashes the dogs (or Coogs in this case) with heavy pressure, particularly up the middle, which opposing offensive lines are unable to handle. It always starts up front for Orlando’s unit and that was definitely the case Saturday night with Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux (along with Nick Thurman and Zach Vaughn in reserve) doing a nice job in limiting Vanderbilt’s success on early run downs, setting up third-and-medium or long’s in which Orlando would dial up a number of various types of blitzes, with my personal favorite; the double-A gap blitz. Orlando would send linebackers and/or safeties on these double-A gap blitzes to get the ball out of the QB’s hands before they wanted, leading to rushed throws into coverage resulting in incompletions or worse yet, turnovers. The line also did a nice job of shedding blocks as Mark, Thurman, Malveaux and Thurman all had tackles-for-loss. Singleton added a pass breakup on a batted ball and outside rush backer Tyus Bowser had a sack and tackle-for-loss himself.

Middle linebacker Elandon Roberts was once again a tackling machine, with 14 and 7 solo (leading to his nation leading 63). He also forced a fumble with a textbook hit, placing his facemask right on the ball of the Vandy running back’s right arm, in which Thurman recovered. Outside linebacker Steven Taylor was once again all over the field, adding 12 tackles and an interception (off a Roberts tip). Safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart contributed heavily with a combined 10 tackles, with McDonald adding a sack (on a double A-gap blitz) and had his 17th interception of his career, taking the all-time lead in the Cougar defensive record books.

With all the pressure the young Vandy QB’s faced, it was ‘easy pickings’ for the “Jack Boyz” literally, as in shut-down corner William Jackson III intercepting his third pass of the season, for a 55-yard “Pick-6,” giving Houston an insurmountable 27-0 lead midway through the third quarter. The pressure up front allowed UH defensive backs to read the eyes of the young Commodore QB’s to jump wide receiver routes which led to both Jackson and McDonald’s interceptions. For the season the Cougars are leading the nation with a plus-15 turnover margin, including forcing 22 turnovers (12 interceptions and 10 fumbles recovered). In all, Vandy QB’s completed only 5-of-20 passes for 44 yards with three interceptions. The Commodores ran for 141 yards (though the Coogs only allowed 98 per game entering play) with most coming in the second half with the game already out of hand. The 3.4 yards-per-rush for Vandy was slightly above the Houston’s defensive average of 2.9 ypr allowed.

Special teams wise, Ayers did a great job in making the first man miss as he returned 3 punts for 66 yards. The junior is now eighth in the nation, averaging 14.4 yards-per-return after a very slow start to the season. Cornerback Brandon Wilson returned his only kickoff return for 24 yards and averages 26.7 for the season (24th nationally). Punter Logan Piper averaged only 34.6 yards on his 5 punts but dropped 3 of them inside Vandy’s 20-yard line. For the season the senior has dropped 12 of his 32 inside the 20, forcing another 11 fair catches. Place kicker Ty Cummings had only one touchback out of 7 kickoffs, but Herman’s philosophy is for his kickers to kick to the goal line with his cover teams tackling opponents return men at or around the 20-yard line. For the season opponents are averaging starting at their own 23-yard line to begin their offensive drives behind the solid kickoff and punt coverage units as many starters play special teams. Cummings also connected on 22 and 37 yard field goals and is perfect on all three attempts since taking over the job from Kyle Bullard two games ago.

The only major negative of the team’s play as a whole continues to be penalties. The offense continues to kill itself early on in games with false start and holding penalties, placing Ward in difficult second or third-and-long situations that are drive killers. Also, while scoring three TD’s in five attempts inside the red zone, I’m sure Herman would like that number to have been a perfect five-of-five as they had been in previous games. Ward was not able to score on QB sweeps inside the 10-yard line on the two unsuccessful occasions as Vandy defenders swarmed all over the Heisman contending candidate, as they were prepared through film study no doubt. For the season the offense has now scored TD’s on 30-of-43 attempts inside opponent’s 20-yard lines this season. That 69.7-percent conversion rate places them 20th nationally.

Your undefeated and 18th ranked (as of this writing) Cougars (8-0, 4-0 in conference play) look to stay on pace with the Memphis Tigers in the American Athletic Conference’s Western division with a 2:30pm (CST) clash with the Cincinnati Bearcats at TDECU Stadium next Saturday (November the 7th) in another nationally televised ESPN2 game. Stay logged into for a Bearcats scouting report later in the week.

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