Though decided underdogs on the national stage, if you had watched the Houston Cougars play at all this season you would know this wasn’t an upset. Led by head coach Tom Herman, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, the Coogs simply did what they’ve been doing all season; playing ferocious, aggressive hard-hitting football which led to turnovers while offensively out-scheming opposing defenses with misdirection behind a physical inside run game. Oh, and a magician at quarterback named Greg Ward Jr., who’s 19-2 as a starter over the past two seasons.
The defense held Florida State all-world running back Dalvin Cook to only 33 yards on 18 carries, his worst performance of the year. The front seven of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux on the defensive front, along with Tyus Bowser, Mathew Adams, Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor at linebacker held the Seminoles to just 16 yards rushing total, 165 below their season total which put the game into the hands of QB Sean Maguire. With nearly a month off, Orlando dialed up some aggressive and exotic blitzes. On a few plays he would line up Singleton over the center with three or four other linemen lined up on the right side on an overload blitz look. Other times he had his linemen constantly moving just before the snap to confuse the Noles offensive linemen. Maguire completed some passes (22-of-44), for some yards (392) but you could tell he was never comfortable in the pocket, even getting knocked out for a series in the second quarter. This uneasiness caused Maguire to throw 4 interceptions, 3 coming in the second half, ruining any chance for Florida State to make a comeback as they trailed the entire game.
Roberts and Taylor repeated their terrific performances of their regular season play with 10 and 6 tackles respectively, with Taylor adding 2.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and forced fumble. Adams had perhaps his best performance of the season with 5 tackles, including one for loss and a sack as well. Bowser and reserve lineman Jerard Carter also added half a sack each. Amongst the rest of the linemen, reserve Nick Thurman added 3 tackles including one for loss as the D-line tied up the Seminoles offensive line to allow the Houston linebackers and secondary opportunities to cause havoc behind the line of scrimmage, where they were constantly.
In the last game of his career, safety Trevon Stewart was my player of the game though he only had four tackles. Of course he added two interceptions and a fumble recovery as he was his usual ball-hawking, magnet-to-the-ball self. I remember interviewing “WordWide” before his first summer practice with him telling me he thinks he could start all four years. Stewart will be missed along Cullen Boulevard. His partner-in-crime and fellow safety, Adrian McDonald, added 7 tackles and exits stage left as the all-time leader in Houston history with 16 interceptions.
The man who probably made the best decision NOT to leave early to enter the NFL draft last season was cornerback William Jackson III, who’s only set a single-season record with 23 pass breakups this year, adding 2 against the Noles while adding 2 interceptions. One pick came on a diving effort as he looked as if he were beat deep late in the second quarter. Jackson also added a team-high 10 tackles (tied with Roberts) for good measure. Brandon Wilson added 3 tackles at the other corner spot despite pulling double-duty as a running back. Nickel back Lee Hightower added 6 tackles with Jeremy Winchester and Khalil Williams adding one each in replacing Wilson.
Offensively, Herman discussed during the post-game trophy ceremony how he felt his team didn’t match up man-for-man with Florida State’s defense so he had to use some misdirection, tempo and even a little “trickeration” as receiver Demarcus Ayers completed a 20 yard pass to Chance Allen off a reverse for a touchdown to give the Coogs a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. Ayers would later toss another pass, this time to Ward off of a speed sweep that fell just short. Ward completed 25-of-41 passes for 238 yards as Applewhite sought to get the ball out of his QB’s hands quickly to negate the Florida State pass rush. Allen caught two TD passes (of his 4 total receptions for 59 yards), including his only from Ward on a 17 yarder after a Seminole corner blitzed off the edge, leaving Allen wide open as he scampered the final 15 yards for the score after neither safety went over to cover for the blitz. That score gave the Coogs a 31-17 lead in the middle of the third. Ayers caught 9 passes for 82 yards, many coming off speed sweep pitches that register as passes since the ball leaves the QB’s hands moving forwards, but are really a designed run to get the ball to the edge. Steven Dunbar caught 4 passes for 32 yards with reserves Donald Gage and Linell Bonner catching 2 for 8 and 1 for 11 respectively as Ward spread the wealth. Drew Mehringer will also be missed as he becomes the new offensive coordinator at Rutgers. The first year receivers coach really got his unit to ‘buy in’ as they’ve been a force blocking if they weren’t catching passes.
Applewhite and Herman wanted the ball out of Ward’s hands quickly as even running backs Ryan Jackson (who made his return after a 4 week absence due to a shoulder injury) and Wilson had 5 receptions for 32 yards and 2 for 31 respectively. The quick passing game would not be possible however without the presence of an inside run game, which Jackson accomplished with 54 yards on 16 carries as Kenneth Farrow could only carry the ball 3 times for 9 yards due to his recurring ankle issue. Of course it was the electrifying Ward that led the offense in rushing yards with 67, on 20 carries and 2 TDs.
Houston would rush for 187 yards on 53 total carries behind the most underrated offensive line in the nation under the coaching of Derek Warehime. With senior Ben Dew returning at left guard after missing all but the first two games of the season, youngsters Mason Denley and Kameron Eloph wouldn’t need to see the field against an athletic and quick FSU interior defensive line. Alex Cooper, Will Noble, Colton Freeman and Carter Wall played their usual left tackle, center, right guard and right tackle positions respectively and more than held their own against a stout Florida State defense, which allowed only 327 yards-per-game entering play Thursday and only 15.8 points-per-game. The Coogs offense finished with 448 total yards and 38 total points, more than any team has scored on the Noles this season. In fact no team had scored more than 24 points on them the entire season.
The special teams also helped contribute at key moments in the game, particularly Dunbar’s 37 yard kick return late in the fourth quarter which gave the offense tremendous field position at Florida State’s 45-yard line after fielding the popped-up kick at his own 18-yard line. The Coogs won the field position game overall behind punter Logan Piper and kicker Ty Cummings as Piper pinned the Noles inside their own 20-yard line on 3 of his 7 punts (he averaged 41.6 with a high of 55) with Cummings adding 3 touchbacks on 7 kickoffs. The Noles returned the other 4 kickoffs for only 86 yards. Cummings also made a 39-yard field goal to push a third quarter lead to 24-10.
As I had mentioned in the keys to the game in my pregame preview, the Coogs won in the departments of turnovers, red zone efficiency, third downs and intangibles. Coming into the game the Noles had only 10 turnovers ALL season. Leaving the Georgia Dome they had 15. Entering play Thursday, the Noles defense was SIXTH in the nation in allowing touchdowns inside the red zone with only 12 in 30 opportunities for the opponent. Applewhite’s unit crossed the goal line ALL five chances it had, keyed by two QB sweeps behind the O-line and Tyler McCloskey at tight end. The running backs and wide receivers did an excellent job of blocking out wide as well as they have all season long. Entering play Thursday, the Coogs offense had converted on nearly 50-percent of their third down opportunities. Led by Ward, connecting on passes down field or taking off and running himself on designed roll-outs, the offense converted 13-of-23 said third down chances.
And finally, coaching. Herman and his staff have consistently gotten the best out of his young men. He’s made them believers. Game after game after game the team has imposed their will on its opponents. Of course that’s easier when you play at such a high tempo that allows you to run 99 plays and keep possession of the ball for over 34-minutes as the Coogs did against Florida State. The staff also got the players to believe in themselves. Twice this season Ward has had to leave games with injuries. And twice this season Kyle Postma stepped in without missing a beat. Postma completed two passes for only two yards, but made perhaps the most important play of the game late in the fourth quarter with the Coogs leading only 31-24. On third-and-long at the Noles 31-yard line he ran for 29 yards on a QB draw. Two plays later Jackson scored the final touchdown, squeezing the life out of the Noles with just under three minutes remaining in the game. That’s the essence of coaching, and the essence of the 2015 Houston Cougars football team. And that #HTownTakeover is just beginning. Stay logged into Coogfans year round for recruiting and spring ball articles leading into the 2016 season.