Game 10 Preview: Memphis

American Athletic Conference action heats up this Saturday (November the 14th) at TDECU Stadium in yet another matchup of top ten offenses as the Memphis Tigers (8-1, 4-1 in the AAC West) look to take down your 24th ranked Houston Cougars (9-0, 5-0) in a key divisional showdown. Game time is set for 6pm local time in an ESPN2 nationally televised contest.

The Tigers have really turned their program around since the teams last meeting when the Greg Ward Jr. era unofficially begun with a 28-24 victory by the good guys in Memphis last October. Actually both teams have turned their programs around with that game as both teams have won 15 of 17 with the Coogs on a current 9-game winning streak under first year head coach Tom Herman while the Tigers 15-game win streak (and 10 games in conference), which was the third longest in the nation, was snapped with a loss at home to Navy last Saturday.

Justin Fuente, 25-21 in his fourth season as Memphis head coach, has really changed their culture as the Tigers were just 5-31 in the three previous seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival from TCU where he was offensive coordinator during the 2009 through the 2011 seasons. The former quarterback at both Oklahoma and Murray State built the Tiger’s identity through their defense last season as they finished the season ranked 11th in opponent’s points-per-game at 19.5 and 28th in total defense at just under 330 yards-per-game resulting in them finishing the season as a league tri-champ (their first conference championship since 1971) with a 10-3 overall record.

After losing 12 seniors and 8 starters from last year’s imposing defense, this season has been all about their offense, led by third year starting QB Paxton Lynch (6-foot-7 inches, 245 pounds, RJr.) who some scouts feel may be the first QB selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Besides being a freak of an athlete which allows Fuente to add option principles (zone read option or speed option) to his wide open spread offense, Lynch has the arm to make every throw needed in order to excel at the next level. While his height allows him to scan coverages from the pocket with no worries of balls being batted down, his mobility allows him to roll out and throw on the run where he’s great at setting his feet and squaring his hips before making throws downfield. In passing for over 8,000 career yards, Lynch is averaging 334.9 yards passing-per-game this season (on 36 attempts per game) ranking him sixth nationally. The Deltona, Florida native, who was only recruited by Memphis, Florida A&M and Central Florida, has 50 career passing touchdowns with 19 coming this season while throwing only 2 interceptions on the year. Lynch’s 68.9-percent completion percentage ranks him 11th nationally.

Protecting Lynch is an offensive line that’s given up only 12 sacks so far on the season (25th), led by mammoth left tackle Taylor Fallin (6’6, 330, Sr.), who will be making his 33rd career start come kickoff Saturday night. Beside him at left guard will be first year starter Christopher Roberson (6’7, 330, RSr.). With true freshman Drew Kyser (6’5, 300) winning the starting center spot (having started 7 of their 8 games) after having enrolled during the spring, Gabe Kuhn (6’4, 295, RSo) was able to move over to right guard (started 7 of 8 as well) with Trevon Tate (6’4, 280, RFr.) being a first year starter at right tackle.

The Tigers, under co-coordinators Darrell Dickey and Brad Cornelsen, average 44.8 points-per-game (6th) and 546.7 total yards of offense (7th); 194.6 on the ground (39th) and 352.1 (9th) through the air. Their spread offense is multiple in every sense of the word; not just in how many various sets they employ in which receivers are overloaded and bunched to one side in order to create one-on-one matchups on the opposite side, but also in the number of athletes they get the ball in the hands of. Like Cincinnati, the Tigers don’t rely on just one wide receiver or running back; instead rotating four running backs (who all have between 60 to 100 carries) while also using their wide receivers in the run game on jet sweeps in order to stress opposing defenses horizontally as well as vertically. At least 4 wide receivers have more than 5 carries while they spread the passing game out to at least 7 receivers (including tight ends) on a regular basis.

Like the Cougars, the Tigers offense is based off the power run game as they have 401 attempts rushing the ball (44.5 rushes-per-game) to 340 total passing attempts (37.7 per game). The 82.3 plays-per-game average ranks them 10th while their 31-minutes, 12-seconds of possession time offensively ranks them 43rd as they’ll vary it up between going up-tempo or slowing their speed down in order to give their defense some rest. The Tigers leading rusher is Doroland Dorceus (5’10, 215, RSo.) with 449 yards on a team leading 103 attempts. The Spring, Texas native along with Jarvis Cooper (6’1, 245, So.) and Lynch himself (192 yards on 62 carries) are the between-the-tackles bruisers in which the power game is based off of. While both Cooper and Dorceus average 4.4 yards-per-carry, Jamarius Henderson (5’11, 210, Fr.) averages 6 yards-per-rush (292 yards on 49 carries). Sam Craft (6’0, 210, Jr.) meanwhile is actually listed first on the Tigers depth chart this week as the starter though he’s coming off an injury and didn’t play last week versus Navy. Craft is a former walk-on who plays all over the field, including in the slot whether he begins a play in there in order to carry on a speed sweep or motioning out of the backfield in order to create a one-on-one mismatch against a bigger linebacker of safety. Craft only averages 4 yards-per-rush (252 yards on 63 carries with 5 TDs. Dorceus leads the ground attack with 7 TDs while Cooper has 5, Henderson has 4 while Lynch has 2 from his QB spot.

As mentioned, Memphis will use their wide receivers in the run game even if it’s just window dressing via the motioning of receivers from one side of the field to another. This misdirection is a huge part of the Memphis offense that’s just another something to give opposing defensive coordinator’s fits. When the Tigers receivers do get the ball in their hands in the run game it usually goes for big yardage. Slot receiver Mose Frazier (5’11, 190, Sr.) leads the team in both receptions, 52, and yards, 626, and has 3 TDs. Another former walk-on, Frazier also has 11 carries for 88 yards with another 2 TDs. Outside receiver Anthony Miller (5’11, 190, RSo.) is right behind Frazier with 607 yards on 38 receptions and 4 TDs while also rushing 9 times for 54 yards with 2 more scores on the ground. Splitting time with Miller is Tevin Jones (6’2, 225, RSr.) as the physical specimen averages 16.8 yards-per-reception (285 yards on 17 catches) with 4 TDs while carrying 5 more times but just for 11 yards. Splitting time Frazier is true freshman sensation Jae’Lon Oglesby (5’11, 175) who has 138 yards on 14 catches with a TD and 5 carries for 79 more yards. Splitting time at the other outside receiver spot are Phil Mayhue (6’3, 210, So.) and Roderick Proctor (5’11, 175, So.) whom have 36 and 24 catches for 507 and 311 yards respectively.

Alan Cross (6’1, 235, Sr.) is a four year starter at tight end and is the ultimate possession receiver, especially in the red zone as he knows how to use his big body to fend off smaller safeties while having the route running abilities to stave off bigger linebackers in coverage. Yet another former walk-on, Cross who is also a nice blocker, has 186 yards on 21 receptions with 2 TDs. Daniel Montiel (6’3, 240, RJr.) is more the inline blocker at the position but has often been lost down the seam to the tune of a 16.6 yards-per-reception average (116 yards on 7 receptions) with 2 TDs. Lynch loves using the quick slant to hit either Cross or one of his slot receivers on quick-hitters in the passing game off of play-action.

As if all of that isn’t enough to give defensive coordinators nightmares, they also have to deal with Craft, Dorceus and Henderson catching the ball out of the backfield whether it’s a running back screen, they motion out to receiver or catch a swing pass. Craft is as shifty as Frazier despite his size and averages 14.3 yards-per-reception (114 yards on 8 catches) with 2 TD’s receiving while Henderson averages 15.8 ypr (79 on 5 with a score). Dorceus averages an even better 16.3 ypc (114 on 7) with yet another TD in the incredibly balanced offensive attack.

You may think you’ve been reading an inaccuracy when I stated that Craft, Frazier and Cross were all former walk-ons. I mean how many walk-ons can contribute that much to a winning FBS program after all? Plenty apparently as five of the top six Tigers receivers are former walk-ons. Fuente inherited a major depth issue when he was initially hired and has ended up giving over 30 walk-ons scholarships over his four-plus seasons in Graceland. This is what’s called “coaching up” as coaches had to give lesser talented players enough coaching in order for them to play consistently throughout the season.

In the ultimate segue, “coaching up” is exactly what first year Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has done with his defense so far this season in his base 3-4 scheme as the “Third Ward Defense” allows only 18.7 points-per-game (23rd) after allowing 30 last week to the Bearcats. In allowing Cinci to pass for over 500 yards the Coogs now allow an average of 268.1 yards-per-game (107th) to just a nation’s 8th best 99.4 yards on the ground. The 367.6 total offense per game is 46th best nationally.

Orlando will pressure Lynch, especially up the middle with double A-gap blitzes, so the chess match between the veteran DC and the two Memphis OC’s will be fun to watch. Memphis does have a quick passing game as they love outside bubble screens which act as an extension of their outside run game while also using quick slants over the middle as they stress every inch of the field so the Cougars defensive backfield will have to be on their game.

Starting defensive linemen Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6‘4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6‘6, 270, Jr.), along with Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.), Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) and Zack Vaughn (6’4, 270, RFr.) in reserve may be able to apply the heat against Lynch without much of a blitz as the Midshipmen were able to apply pressure most of the night last week against Lynch with only 3 and 4 man fronts, forcing him to throw maybe a little earlier than he wanted into coverage. Tate at right tackle was especially beat numerous times in one-on-one battles along the edge, something to look out for against outside rush backer Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) who has 4.5 sacks on the season.

Houston linebackers Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) and Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) will be responsible for shooting the gaps to make plays behind that defensive line in both the run and pass game as they have all season long. Roberts is second in the nation with 68 solo tackles, including 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. Taylor’s 8 sacks and 13 TFL has him at 11th and 20th in the nation respectively.

While Memphis will use plenty of bunch formations in order to deny defensive backs the ability to jam their receivers at the line of scrimmage, the unit has dropped an alarming number of passes that I’ve noticed on tape over the past few games. This would be helpful to a Houston secondary that may have lost its best player last week in shut down corner William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.), who sprained an MCL versus Cincinnati last week. As Coach Herman always says though, it’s next man up as Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 190, RFr.) and Tyler White (5’11, 195, Sr.) will share duties if those nation’s fourth leading 17 passes defended along with 3 interceptions need to be replaced. Winchester was picked on immediately upon insertion in the game against the bigger Bearcats receivers and did allow some plays but he acquitted nicely for himself with a pass breakup on their last drive of the game, as did dime back Khalil Williams (6’0, 200, So.)

Corner back Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.), safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) along with nickel back Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) must do a better job in coverage against the Tigers slot receives and tight ends than they did against the Bearcats or it could be another long night for ‘Coogfans.’ Wilson has done a nice job this season in run support as he has 44 tackles (40 solo tying him for third on the team), including 2 for loss, forced 2 fumbles and recovered 1. In coverage Wilson has 7 passes defended and an interception he took 51 yards to the house last week for a defensive score. The “Jack Boyz” scored 9 points against Cinci as Stewart would add a safety among his 3 sacks in a performance I’m sure Orlando would love to see repeated. Stewart has 9 TFL, 6 sacks, 5 QB hurries and 2 fumbles recovered as he’s much better playing in the box than he is in coverage. McDonald is first on the team with 4 interceptions, third with 40 solo tackles while also adding 2 fumbles forced and recovered each.

Offensively for the Coogs, Herman mentioned during his weekly media press conference on Monday on how the offense needs to finish better than they did last week. The offense had possession with 5 minutes remaining in the game and couldn’t close it out like the head coach wanted, giving Cinci the ball with an opportunity to drive for the game tying field goal or game winning touchdown, something the defense did not allow to happen, luckily for Major Applewhite’s offense.

With backup running back Ryan Jackson out for the season with a broken collar bone, it’ll be on Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) to give starter Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) breathers throughout the game as Herman would not like a repeat of last week’s performance in which Farrow carried the rock 30 times. Webb had actually supplanted Jackson as the backup running back early in the season until an injury and hasn’t actually carried the ball since the SMU game more than a month ago. Through he’s shown up on the game participation chart Webb has only appeared in five games as a running back, carrying the rock 46 times for 205 yards for a 4.5 yards-per-carry average with 2 TDs. Farrow is averaging 95 yards-per-game rushing with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average with 10 TDs. The offense of course centers around Ward as he has 16 TDs on the ground while averaging 92 yards-per-game with another 13 TDs through the air (to 4 interceptions). The junior signal caller also averages 235 yards passing-per-game while completing 70.4-percent of his passes, ranking him third in the nation.

Herman also mentioned on Monday on how he wouldn’t mind opening up the passing game, especially if teams are going to stack the box on a game in, game out basis which they’ve started to do. This development could work out nicely for Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) as Applewhite has done a nice job this season in moving him around to get the ball in the speedsters hands in space. Ayers averages 85 yards-per-game receiving with 5 TDs while adding another 120 yards (on 14 rushes) and a TD on the ground. Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) could really benefit from an opening up of the passing game, particularly off of deep posts via play-action as the Oregon transfer is second on the team in receptions with 34, yards with 478 and TDs with 3 but leads the wide receivers with a 14.1 yards-per-reception average. Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) has 23 receptions for 311 yards and 2 scores but he isn’t targeted enough in my opinion as he has a nice combo of physicality and athletic ability to be a true game changer. As a true sophomore Dunbar needs to learn to become more consistent though he has done a nice job blocking downfield as have all the Houston receivers.

The conservative offensive play calling by Applewhite probably has a lot to do with the youth and continued injuries of the offensive line. After starting the past three games, redshirt freshman Mason Denley (6’4, 305) sat out last week after suffering a concussion during practice. True freshman Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290) had to replace Denley at left guard a week after having to play right guard as Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) sat out due to a shoulder stinger. Freeman started the first six games at center before moving to guard due to injuries at both tackle spots as starting left tackle Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) sat for a few weeks due to an ankle injury, right tackle Zach Johnson was lost for the season due to a knee injury and starting left guard Ben Dew was lost for the season after the second game due to a foot injury. With Denley and Freeman back at left and right guard, the depth returns with Eloph and Oliver moving back to their reserve spots. Tue freshman Will Noble (6’4, 290) makes his consecutive fourth start at center with bookends Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) and Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.) at left and right tackle respectively. The unit has allowed only 18 sacks on the season (58th).

Despite the musical chairs and youth along the line, the Coogs still average 44.8 points-per-game (8th) and 525.1 total yards of offense (10th); 273 yards rushing (7th) and 252.1 yards passing (41st). They’ll be facing a Memphis defense surrendering 28.7 points-per-game (80th) under first year coordinator Galen Scott, who’s a holdover from the previous regime. The Tigers allow 147.1 yards-per-game rushing (46th) due in part to the fact that Navy and their triple option ran through and around their front-7 to the tune of 374 yards. Before that game they had been allowing 115 yards on the ground. Of course this is because only eight teams in the FBS allow more than the 290.1 yards-per-game through the air that the Tigers do, even with Navy only passing for 85 yards and Tulane for 131 yards the previous game. The Tigers have allowed 421 yards passing to Tulsa, 440 versus Ole Miss, 620 to Cincinnati and 443 to Bowling Green earlier in the year in shootouts. Stats can always lie though as Memphis did have huge leads in all of said games forcing their opponents to go into attack mode, something all of those schools are known for offensively anyway. The 437.2 yards allowed ranks Memphis 100th nationally.

The Tigers defensive scheme is a 3-4 though they will play in 4 and 5 man fronts when pressuring. Up front they are led by nose tackle Donald Pennington (6’2, 295, RJr.), who’s flanked by Christian Johnson (6’5, 255, RSo.) and Ernest Suttles (6’5, 265, RSo.) at defensive end. Pennington leads the defensive front with 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks with Johnson adding 3.5 and 2 respectively. Reserve end Ricky Hunter (6’3, 290, RSr.) adds 2.5 TFL and a sack. True freshman Jared Gentry doesn’t have gaudy stats but is a true run stuffer at 6’2, 325 pounds.

As with all 3-4 schemes, the Tigers linebackers are the heart and soul of their defense and are led by Genard Avery (6’1, 255, So.) at weakside linebacker, Wynton McManis (6’1, 225, Sr.) on the strongside and Leonard Pegues (5’11, 240, Sr.) and Shareef White (6’1, 230, So.) at middle linebacker. Jackson Dillon (6’6, 245, Jr.) and DeMarco Montgomery (6’3, 245, Jr.) play the “Dawg” spot which is a hybrid stand-up rush backer/hand-on-the-ground defensive end. Avery leads the defense in both total tackles with 49 and TFL with 6.5 though he’s tied with McManis with 40 solo tackles. Genard also leads the defense with 3 sacks as their 18 total ranks them only 66th nationally as Scott hasn’t blitzed as often as he would like due to spotty coverage in the secondary. Dillon and Pegues are probably their best overall pure athletes as they have 4.5 and 4 TFL respectively. McManis and Dillon have two of the defense’s five fumble recoveries.

The Tigers secondary plays a lot of zone with basic cover-2 looks while adding in some man coverage to mix things up as no DC will ever give the same consistent looks. Their leader on the back end is Reggis Ball (5’11, 210, Sr.), a hard hitting free safety who flies all over the field as he has 40 tackles, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Strong safety Chris Morley (5’11, 195, Jr.) has 35 tackles and 3 passes broken up, tying him with Ball in the latter category. The Tigers best cover corner is probably Arthur Maulet (5’11, 190, Jr.) who leads the secondary with 5 passes broken up and is tied with Ball for the team lead with 2 interceptions. Dontrell Nelson (6’1, 180, Jr.) and Chauncey Lanier (5’10, 185, Jr.) add depth at corner with 30 tackles and 3 passes broken up respectively.

If the game comes down to a field goal, Memphis definitely has the edge with kicker Jake Elliot (5’10, 165, Jr.). A semi-finalist for the 2013 Lou Groza collegiate place-kicker award after connecting on 16-of-18 as a true freshman, Elliot struggled a bit last season,  hitting on only 21-of-32 before righting himself this season, connecting on 16-of-18 again including a 52-yarder. Elliot has converted on 53 of his 68 career attempts. He also has a strong leg as he has 56 touchbacks in 74 kickoffs.

Elliot’s leg is in large part why the Tigers coverage team allows only 14.3 yards per kickoff return, placing them second in the nation so Brandon Wilson will have to choose wisely on when to bring the kickoff out of the end zone. Even his 100 yard TD at Louisville was a questionable decision as he was several yards deep and should have been brought down around the 10-yard line if not for bad tackling. That one kickoff is mainly the reason why the Coogs average 23.7 yards-per-return, ranking them 24th nationally while Wilson averages 25.6 on the season. Javin Webb had been back on kickoff returns last week as Herman didn’t want to risk losing Wilson as he already lost William Jackson in the backfield.

Coach Herman on the other hand wants his place kicker to kick to the goal line, so his kick return unit can make a tackle inside the 25. The Coogs allow only 19.6 yards per return this season (24th) behind Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) who’s connected on all four of his field goals, with a season high 37 yarder against Vanderbilt, after taking the job from Kyle Bullard earlier this year. Memphis averages only 22.3 yards-per-return on their kickoffs (45th), though Jae’Lon Oglesby has a season high return of 48 with Anthony Miller returning one 47 yards so the Coogs kickoff coverage unit will have to be on its toes.

The Tigers also have a strong punter in Spencer Smith (6’1, 175, RSo.) who averages 46.8 yards which would rank him fourth nationally if he qualified. Smith has only 27 punts because he’s the “long punter,” with Nick Jacobs (6’1, 190, So.) being the “short punter.” Jacobs is brought on when the Tigers want to pin their opponents inside their own 20-yard line, a job in which he’s good at as he’s placed 10 of his 13 there. Jacobs averages 36.8 yards on those 13 punts. The Coogs Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) is also good at placing the ball inside opponents’ 20 yard lines, having done it on 15 of his 38 total punts, in which he averages 40.1 yards. Despite ranking 24th nationally with an overall average of 43.5 yards-per-punt, the Tigers allow 8.5 yards per punt return ranking them 71st. Conversely, the Coogs punt return unit, lined with many starters, allows only 4.1 yards per punt return ranking them 21st.

The Tigers average 9.3 yards on punt returns (53rd) with Roderick Proctor averaging 9 yards-per-return on 16 attempts, while Demarcus Ayers ranks 10th nationally with a 13.4 average on 19 returns so the edge in the return games should go to Houston. Steven Taylor has blocked a field goal for Houston with Joeal Williams a punt. For the Tigers Dillon Jackson uses his massive 6’6 frame to block a field goal earlier this year and Reggis Ball has blocked a kick this year as well.

Keys to the game

To me the keys to every game lie in four key areas; red zone efficiency, third down conversions, turnover margin and penalties. Memphis is a top ten offense is scoring TD’s when in the red zone, converting on 37 of 50 said chances. That 74-percent conversion ratio ranks them EIGHTH nationally. The Coogs red zone defense meanwhile has been sorely lacking this season as only TWO teams allow a worse conversion percentage than their 77.3 (17-of-22 opportunities). Conversely, Houston has crosses the goal line on 33 of 48 chances inside opponents’ 20 yard lines. The 68.9 conversion percentage ranks them 24th, though they have struggled a bit the past two weeks as both Vandy and Cinci have stopped Ward on the QB sweeps that were so successful in the middle of the season. Memphis is ranked 68th in red zone defense with a 59.3 conversion percentage (16 of 27).

The offenses are right on each other’s heals in third down percentage with Memphis ranking eighth at 49.3-perent with the Coogs at ninth at 48.6. Memphis allows opponents to convert on 35.8-percent of their third down chances ranking them 46th while the Coogs are slightly better at 37th with a 34.6-percent third down percentage on defense. Houston can’t get bogged down in running on first and second down on possession like last week, bringing up third-and-long or it could be a long day for Greg Ward and company. Likewise Memphis receivers must catch the ball on early passing downs or Coach Orlando will light Lynch up if the Tigers are in third-and-long on a consistent basis.

One area where Houston always seems to have an advantage is turnover margin, where they rank first nationally with a plus-16 (25 forced to only 9 turnovers offensively). In each of the past three games the “Third Ward Defense” has scored points via turnovers. With corner William Jackson’s status in doubt due to his sprained MCL the offense can’t continue relying on the defense to score points, but they can continue to count on the defense giving them great field position via turnovers because that’s what they do. Lynch has only thrown 2 interceptions this season, but his biggest strength can be his biggest weakness against the “Jack Boyz” as Gunner Kiel found out last week; if you try to force passes into tight windows, Houston defensive backs will steal your lunch money. Ward meanwhile has had 2 turnovers in each of the past 2 games, something he cannot continue doing if the offense is to remain on schedule down and distance wise.

Finally, these are two of the worse teams in the nation in committing penalties with Memphis ranking 114th and 125th with 8.1 penalties per game for 83.6 yards respectively. The Coogs are 84th and 95th with 6.9 and 63.9. Last week Houston only committed 4 penalties for 40 yards. If the Coogs can stop from shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties, they should be able to move the ball against an average Memphis defense. The question is can they stop the Tigers offense?

The Coogs need to come out ready to play against a Tigers squad that will be angry and focused after their first loss against the Midshipmen last week. Even if the Coogs get up early, they can’t become complacent as the Tigers average a nation’s leading 24 points in the second half and have count them, FIVE comebacks this season from double digit deficits, the most for any team since the year 2000.

Final prediction

Houston 34 Memphis 28

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