“Another great team win. Culture win for us. We haven’t had a 4-quarter battle like that since Louisville, so it has been a while. I was really proud of the way both sides of the ball responded to that adversity,” Tom Herman said of the win after the game at his media post game press conference via uhcougars.com. “We knew they were going to score some points, and we found a way to win it there at the end. I’m really proud of the defense. I know the yardage total certainly is a bit gaudy, but they had turnovers again and scored nine points on their own.” Herman became the first Houston head coach to start his career at 9-0 (with the team at 5-0 in American Athletic Conference play).
It’s rare that it can be said a defense that allowed 589 total yards (with 523 of those through the air) had a good day, but that’s the case with the “Third Ward Defense” headed by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Most coaches have too big an ego to pick up where the previous coaching staff left off, but this definitely was not the case with Orlando and the rest of the coaching staff regarding the unit’s mentality on forcing turnovers. Under former DC David Gibbs, the unit preached stripping and punching the ball out which culminated in “Turnover Tuesday’s” at practice each week. Orlando has added to this mentality while adding an emphasis on everyone swarming to the ball and most importantly, aggression.
The Cougars defense lives and dies by the blitz, and Saturday they did just enough NOT to die on the blitz against a Bearcats offense that has a future pro quarterback in Gunner Kiel and a plethora of athletic, big receivers who can win one-on-one battles when passes are lobbed their way. Kiel completed TWELVE passes of over 20 yards on the afternoon with many on jump balls in which the Cinci wide receivers simply “out-athleted” Houston’s secondary. Kiel totaled 523 passing yards, completing 28-of-51 passes, and four touchdowns. That’s when the Cougars weren’t getting pressure on Kiel or the Cincinnati offensive line was able to handle the constant overload blitzes Orlando threw their way. When the pressure did get to Kiel however, they pressured him into throwing early NINE times and sacked him on three occasions. The defenses aggressive play also caused three turnovers as they lead the nation with 25 turnovers forced this season and in turnover margin (at a plus-16). Their 98 total turnovers forced also leads the nation since the beginning of the 2013 season.
The pressure also caused Kiel to complete only 54-percent of his passes though he entered the game completing nearly 70-percent of them. When the pressure did get to Cinci’s gunslinger it was a thing of beauty to behold as it came in waves; the first double-A gap blitzes by linebackers Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor causing UC’s center, two guards and running back to block in unison to stuff up the middle. Safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald would then come barreling in as Orlando would often “overload” one side of the offensive line making it impossible for them to pick up every blitzer, if they even knew who was coming as Orlando would sometime send seven with a defensive lineman falling back in a zone blitz look.
Stewart had all 3 sacks for the Coogs, while also adding 3 tackles-for-loss amongst his 6. The senior safety also pressured Kiel twice, with one causing an interception by Taylor after he hit the UC QB’s arm just as he was attempting a pass early in the fourth quarter killing another drive. The constant pressure also forced Kiel into perhaps his biggest mistake of the game; an ill-advised pass off of a roll-out in which corner back Brandon Wilson easily jumped, taking 51 yards to the house early in the third quarter giving the Coogs some breathing room with a 28-14 lead. Stewart would sack Kiel in the end zone on the Bearcats next possession, giving the defense 9 points on the game. It’s the third straight game, and fourth overall, that the defense has scored in this season. McDonald (7 tackles) also forced a fumble on a Bearcats running back in the red zone, perfectly placing his facemask on the ball.
Now that we got the good out of the way, the bad was obviously the coverage in the secondary as both Stewart and McDonald were burned all day by bigger more athletic Cinci slot receivers. Even Wilson, shutdown corner William Jackson III (4 tackles) and nickel back Lee Hightower (4 tackles and a pass breakup) had bad games as eight Bearcats had 40 yards or more receiving, with ten total catching passes. As I mentioned in my pregame article, the secondary had to be able to re-route the bigger Bearcat receivers at the line of scrimmage as they wouldn’t be able to pressure/blitz Kiel on every single play. This obviously did not happen as Orlando only has confidence enough in Jackson to play bump-and-run at the line, and even he got burned on a 65 yard reception early in the game, with 40 of those yards coming after the catch by Bearcats receiver Chris Moore, who had 6 total receptions for 140 yards and 2 TDs.
Jackson went down with a sprained MCL with two minutes remaining in the third quarter and was replaced by true freshman Jeremy Winchester, who was picked on three times for 20 plus yard receptions. To Winchester’s credit he did have nice coverage on the final Bearcats drive including a pass breakup in which Kiel threw incompletions on his final four passes. On that final drive Orlando stopped blitzing, deciding to rush only three while dropping back eight until the final play in which he sent five in a zone blitz with the result being an incompletion to Moore with Winchester draped all over him. Khalil Williams also added 4 tackles (and a pass breakup on that final Cinci drive) as the dime back’s time increased with the multiple Bearcats receiver sets seen throughout the game.
The defense held up fairly well against the Cinci run game, which entered play Saturday averaging 206 rushing yards, holding them to only 66 yards on just 18 attempts. The defensive line of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton, Cameron Malveaux with Nick Thurman and Zach Vaughn in reserve were able to engage the Bearcats offensive line enough for the linebackers and safeties to shoot the gaps in order to make plays. Mark had 2 tackles, including one for loss while Malveaux had two pressures. Stand up defensive end/outside linebacker Tyus Bowser was all over the field adding 6 tackles, a pressure and recovered the fumble in the end zone that was forced by McDonald thwarting a Bearcats scoring opportunity. Roberts led the way once again for the defense with 9 total tackles and 5 solo as he’s now second in the nation with 68 solo stops, two behind Arizona State defensive back Jordan Simone. Taylor didn’t register a tackle but had three QB hurries and added the interception caused by Stewart.
Offensively, part of the game plan was keeping the ball away from Cincinnati’s offense via time-of-possession. Through the first quarter offensive coordinator Major Applewhite called 16 runs (which accumulated 56 yards), to only 5 passes in which QB Greg Ward Jr. completed 3 for 34 yards. Applewhite opened the game up a little more for Ward as he completed 16-of-24 passes for only 161 yards as he missed on deep shots a few times. Two of the completions went for touchdowns; one on a 2-yard pass to tight end Tyler McCloskey and another on an 11-yarder to receiver Chance Allen early in the second quarter giving the Coogs a 14-7 lead. The Oregon transfer was open in the middle of the field as Demarcus Ayers ran a clear-out route bringing a safety in while outside receiver Steven Dunbar ran a come-back on the outside holding his man. Ayers led the receivers with 5 receptions for 56 yards with Allen adding 27 on 3 and Dunbar a catch for 8 yards himself. McCloskey had a nice 20 yard reception on a seem route in which he was totally uncovered. Linell Bonner added 2 catches for 15 yards and Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow added 3 combined catches for 33 yards. If I were Applewhite I would include the running backs on screen passes and McCloskey on seem routes more often as they often go uncovered with defenses concentrating on Ayers, Allen and Dunbar.
Farrow and Jackson combined for 161 yards on 44 carries with Farrow rushing for 103 on 30 carries with Jackson adding 53 on 14 respectively as they rotated in and out on the first few series of the game. Jackson broke his collar bone late in the game and is out for the season which is very unfortunate considering he had become much better at not dancing at the line of scrimmage, instead planting one foot and accelerating through the line without hesitation. Jackson finishes the season with 353 yards on 68 carries with 3 TDs and his career with 1,876 rushing yards on 378 carries for 5 yards-per-rush and 17 TDs. The senior also adds 676 yards receiving and 5 TDs caught. As coach Herman would say, it’s next man up with Javin Webb having to step up as asking Farrow to carry the rock more than 30 times per game would be too much to ask of the senior captain. Webb has 205 yards on the season while averaging 4.5 yards-per-rush on 46 carries and 2 scores before falling out of the rotation a few weeks ago due to injury.
Farrow seemed tired by the end of the game as he averaged only 3.2 yards-per-rush in the second half (48 yards on 15 carries) with many coming on inside runs called by Applewhite. Herman mentioned after the game that he might have been stubborn in having his offensive coordinator continue calling them even though the Bearcats were stacking the box defensively. Ward himself rushed for 119 yards on 16 carries but was bottled up inside most of the game as Cinci defensive ends rushed the mobile QB to keep him in the pocket. Two times Ward was able to use his evasiveness to get outside on zone read keeper and called draw plays for 26 yards (in the second quarter) and a draw (with Farrow as lead blocker) for 39 yards in the fourth. With those two plays accounting for 65 yards, Ward rushed for only 54 yards on his other 14 carries, good for 3.9 yards-per-carry. Half of Ward’s runs were called by Applewhite, a number Herman will address I’m sure this week as he’ll continue to harp to the junior that he needs to stay in the pocket more in order to avoid unnecessary hits over the long haul.
The fact that the Coogs rushed for 266 yards (on 63 carries keeping the ball for 37-minutes, 33 seconds) and average 273 rushing yards per game this season (seventh nationally) is a testament to the job that offensive line coach Derek Warehime continues to do in coaching his unit up. Saturday’s game was the SEVENTH different starting offensive line in nine games as the unit had to play another game of musical chairs due to injury, this week with Mason Denley sitting out because of a concussion suffered in practice during the week. Colton Freeman replaced Denley at left guard to begin the game but he himself was taken out due to the ‘stinger’ suffered two games ago. Carter Wall then moved from right tackle to replace Freeman, causing Alex Cooper to move from left to right tackle with Marcus Oliver filling in at left tackle. Oliver started the season as the starting left tackle but injured his ankle versus SMU four games ago and apparently isn’t among the top five offensive line any longer, instead filling in as a much needed reserve. True freshman Will Noble made his third straight start at center and Kameron Eloph started his second straight at right guard, just weeks after playing defensive line.
The Cougars special teams units played superb Saturday afternoon, especially their coverage units as the Bearcats averaged 16 yards on 6 kickoff returns and started at their own 19-yard line on average, part in due to punter Logan Piper dropping 3 of his 6 punts inside the Bearcats 20-yard line while forcing 3 fair catches. The Coogs meanwhile averaged starting their offensive possessions at their own 32-yard line due mainly to the defense pinning the Bearcats so deep numerous times. The Coogs return teams were average with Wilson averaging 23 yards on his 4 kickoff returns while Ayers returned his only punt for minus-5 yards. Kicker Ty Cummings converted on his fourth straight field goal (a 29 yarder) since taking over for Kyle Bullard five games ago. Redshirt freshman Joeal Williams blocked a punt, though mishandled by Cinci’s punter, on their first offensive possession rounding out the solid special teams play on the day.
In all it was a solid game by the Coogs in only their second contest in which they were faced with true adversity. Herman was proud of the way his team responded as he’s been quoted in the past by saying, “when hit with adversity, take a deep breath, focus on the next play, concentrate on your fundamentals and play with an undying love for your brother next to you while giving fanatical effort.” He also was quoted by a sideline reporter before the game as saying, “Nothing great ever was achieved in life without energy, effort, passion and most importantly; purpose and that’s the love of the guy next to you so we’re going to play with a purposed unmatched in the country today.” That they did and will need to continue to do so to defeat the Memphis Tigers (8-1, 4-1) next Saturday in an AAC West showdown at 6pm at TDECU Stadium in another nationally televised ESPN2 game. Stay logged into Coogfans for a game preview later in the week.