Head coach Tom Herman on the comeback effort during his post game press conference via uhcougars.com, “There is not much to say, other than ‘incredible team win.’ I know that phrase gets used a lot across the nation, probably used by me as well. We couldn’t do anything in the first half offensively. Defense gave up some big plays, but I thought they played admirably given the lack of field position and lack of keeping drives alive by the offense. To come out and take the first drive of the second half down for a touchdown, then come back to give up a touchdown on defense, things looked pretty bleak. At one point, we had a false start and two back-to-back holding penalties in a row, and the offense came off the field.
But it was really neat to see the look in our team’s eyes of never giving up. They really played for each other. It’s also another phrase that gets used around this country probably way too much, but in our locker room we have a bunch of guys that love each other. It’s impossible to give up when things are getting kind of rough and looking kind of bleak. When you’re doing it for yourself, it’s easy; you just move on to the next thing, but when you’re doing it for somebody you love and you know they love you back, it’s impossible to give up. Again, we’ll celebrate tonight, but it’s a workday tomorrow. We’ve got a UConn team that’s fresh, that’s coming off a bye week, and we have to make sure we’re prepared to go 1-0 next week.”
Where to start? Probably with an offense led by backup quarterback Kyle Postma leading the comeback effort. The former walk-on QB entered the game with 1:21 remaining in the first half with the offense really struggling. Trailing 20-0 against a pumped up Memphis squad, the Coogs had only 44 yards of total offense (minus-14 rushing) as starter Greg Ward was struggling, completing only 5-of-11 passes for 60 yards while rushing for minus-19 yards on 9 carries (including 3 sacks). The Tigers were dominating both lines of scrimmage up to that point, having accumulated 265 yards (70 rushing, 195 passing) while the Coogs couldn’t find a rhythm as Memphis sacked Houston QB’s 5 times total. Postma came in and completed two short passes for 14 yards before dropping a bomb in the lap of Linell Bonner (5 receptions, 65 yards) for a 38-yard touchdown on a deep post to bring the Coogs to within 20-7 at the half. A key play before that he hit Demarcus Ayers (13 receptions, 127 yards) on a roll-out on third-and-four. On the TD to Bonner the backup QB would look off the safety, even pump faking to the opposite side to make sure Bonner was in one-on-one coverage to the outside. Postma competed like a professional the entire game, completing 21-of-33 passes for 236 yards with the TD to Bonner. Even with a backup, Applewhite could still use the QB run game as Postma carried the rock 6 times for 49 yards with the game winning score on an option keeper with a minute and a half remaining in the game.
Houston’s wide receivers were not getting open early as Memphis rushed only 5 through most of the first half while dropping 6 back in coverage, forcing Ward to go through his progressions which isn’t his specialty. Drops by Steven Dunbar (1 reception, 10 yards) and tight end Tyler McCloskey didn’t help as the offense went ‘three-and-out’ on five of their six first half possessions, with Postma leading the way for a TD on the seventh. For the game, Chance Allen had 3 receptions for 41 yards and the running back duo of Kenneth Farrow and Javin Webb added 53 yards on 4 combined receptions, mainly as safety outlets.
Applewhite’s game calling was perplexing to me early on as he didn’t even attempt to establish an inside run game as Farrow had only THREE carries (for 16 yards and a TD) through the first three quarters of the game. Herman was quoted in a Houston Chronicle article earlier this week about trying limit Farrow’s touches to conserve him for later in the season, but only three carries while not trying to establish him between the tackles in your biggest game of the season made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Farrow finished the game rushing for 46 yards on just 10 carries (with 2 TDs) with Webb adding 23 yards on 4 more. The Coogs finished with a season low of just 96 yards rushing though they entered the game averaging 273. Now when your team gets down by 20 points on two separate occasions, the run game has to be thrown out the window, which makes the fact that Applewhite didn’t even try to run inside more perplexing as the usual ground effort protects Ward while keeping the Memphis offense off the field so they wouldn’t be able to run up a 20-0 lead in the first place.
Memphis played games up front against a Houston offensive line of Marcus Oliver, Mason Denley, Will Noble, Kameron Eloph and Alex Cooper from left to right tackle, their EIGHTH starting different lineup in their ten games. Stunts and twists seemed to confuse the two freshman guards as Memphis rarely blitzed on early non-passing downs. Again, the fact that Applewhite didn’t try to establish the inside run game didn’t help them out early as offensive linemen would rather run block, where they’re moving forward aggressively, rather than pass block where they’re on their heels defensively. For reasons unknown, Carter Wall didn’t play the first half but was inserted in at right tackle in the second half with Cooper moving over to left tackle to replace Oliver, who’s still struggling in one-on-one pass protection, probably due to a gimpy ankle. Colton Freeman missed his third straight game since suffering a stinger at UCF.
The Coogs scored 28 points on 4 of 6 second half possessions while tallying almost 300 yards of total offense as Applewhite moved Postma out of the pocket on roll outs to avoid Memphis pressure while connecting on quick short passes that would set up the deep passing game in the second half. Ward’s playing status for UConn will be determined in practice this week but it’s nice to know you’ve got a capable backup in Postma if ‘the man’ cannot go. No matter who starts at QB next week, he’ll end up having better results if Applewhite tries to establish that inside run early and less on the deep passing game, which has had mixed results so far this season.
Defensively, the Coogs also struggled against a sound Memphis game plan that emphasized the inside run early on (notice a theme hear). The Tigers rushed for only 70 first half yards on 31 carries however. While a 2.3 yards-per-carry average is hardly impressive, many of their shorter runs came on third-and-short downs which was set up by early running plays that gained 4 or 5 yards a chunk. Memphis QB Paxton Lynch ran for only 43 yards but 6 of his 13 carries resulted in first downs, many on third-and-short (less than 3 yards) on called QB draws or zone read keepers resulting in the Tigers converting on 12-of-19 third down conversions. Doroland Dorceus gashed the Coogs up front many times to the tune of 116 yards on 16 carries and a TD. The Tigers ran for 212 yards on 54 carries, a season high allowed by the “Third Ward Defense” that entered play allowing only 99.4 per game. While the Tigers rushed for 142 second half yards, 63 of those yards came on two plays; a 25 yard score on an option pitch to begin the fourth by the Tigers wide receiver Tevin Jones, and a 38 yarder up the middle by Dorceus in the middle of the fourth. Aside from those two runs, the defensive line of Tomme Mark, B.J.Singleton, and Cameron Malveaux with Nick Thurman and Zach Vaughn in reserve held the Tigers in check in the second half for the most part.
The early run success by Memphis had two results; 1.) It kept the ball from the explosive UH offense as they held the ball for more than 34 minutes, and 2.) Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando couldn’t call the ultra aggressive game he usually does. The Coogs had only one sack by linebacker Elandon Roberts, who played another all out relentless game leading the D with 18 sacks (10 solo) and had an incredible interception as he nabbed the ball out of the air on a quick slant off of play-action. Play-action sucked the front-7 in more than a few times as Lynch completed 20-of-31 passes for 278 yards (led by Phil Mayhue’s 5 receptions for 43 yards) and 2 TDs; one on play-action to his tight end Alan Cross in which redshirt corner Jeremy Winchester (subbing for shutdown corner William Jackson III) and safety Adrian McDonald bit on which resulted in an easy pitch-and-catch that ended up going for 38 yards. The other TD through the air came on a 61 screen to Dorceus in which he ended up doing most of the running after the catch. This was definitely a game in which the defense’s aggressiveness was used against them via the outside receiver and running back screen game.
Rush backer Tyus Bowser flew all over the field to the tune of 9 tackles with 2 QB hurries. McDonald was right behind with 8 tackles, with linebackers Steven Taylor and Mathew Adams adding 7 each. Through three quarters the D hadn’t produced a turnover, but when it counted the most they forced two; one on a Thurman fumble recovery off a botched option pitch from Lynch to Dorceus and the other on the aforementioned interception by Roberts. Unlike last week however, the defense almost allowed a last minute score for the win as Lynch drove the Tigers from his 23-yard line to the Coogs 31. Only a missed 48-yard field goal (wide right) saved the day for the good guys.
If not for that missed field goal by the Tigers Jake Elliot, special teams would have been a huge advantage for Memphis as the junior kicker nailed 7 touchbacks, negating the return abilities of Brandon Wilson for the Coogs. The Tigers Jae’Lon Oglesby averaged 24.2 yards on his 5 kickoff returns. Memphis Spencer Smith averaged 47.5 yards on his 4 punts, with the rugby style punts negating Demarcus Ayers punt return ability as he had only two returns for a negative six yards. Houston’s Logan Piper also had a nice game punting the ball, averaging 42.3 yards on his 7 total with a long of 57 and placing one inside the Memphis 20-yard line. Memphis Mose Frazier and Roderick Proctor returned a combined 4 punts for a minus-8 yards. Houston’s Ty Cummings was not needed on field goal attempts as Herman decided to go for it twice on fourth down when trailing in the fourth quarter.
In all, the Coogs did what they had to do to win the game. They scored four touchdowns on five red zone possessions to the Tigers crossing the goal line on just one of their three attempts, resulting in two short field goals. The Coogs should have been five for five if not for an illegal formation in which McCloskey was not an eligible receiver on his 7-yard TD catch on second-and-goal in the fourth quarter. That could have been a key play that could have altered the outcome of the game as Postma ended up throwing an incomplete pass a few plays later on fourth down. Either McCloskey should have sat a little further back in his stance, or one of the receivers should have in which was an alignment issue. Penalties killed a scoring opportunity on the previous possession as two holding penalties on Denley and Wall wiped out 27 yards on two plays. The hold on Wall was suspect as was the officiating on many calls for the second week in a row, something I won’t get into too much as players have to play through bad calls. For the second week in a row the Coogs committed fewer penalties than they averaged coming in, committing only 4 for 40, all in the second half.
The fact that the team is competing at the level they are with so many replacements who are underclassmen says a lot about the coaching and culture as Herman put it, “It goes back to the culture that you work on since we got here in January. It’s not something that just happens in a week. That is something that is engraved in our program now. Everybody prepares as if he was the starter. I know a lot of teams say that, but we lived that. That’s who we are. That’s what we do each and every day.”
The Coogs look to stay undefeated as they take to the road to Storrs, Connecticut next Saturday for a 3:30pm (local time) game that will be televised nationally on ESPNU. Stay logged into Coogfans.com for my game preview piece later in the week.