The conference championship game! Back in August, many UH fans were expecting the Cougars would be playing in it, and so they are. And Stendahl's The Red and the Black seems like a fitting title since it describes the teams' primary colors and is set during the restoration of a monarchy. Cougar football fans want the crown returned to Cullen Boulevard after a 10-year absence. And they can win it back against Southern Miss, the team that took it from them after the Cougars' one-year reign. The Golden Eagles are a tough opponent, a club many C-USA fans consider to be to the East Division of the conference much what Oklahoma is to the South Division of the Big XII. USM finished the season 8-4 overall and were 6-2 in conference. UH won the West with a 7-1 league record, the best conference mark in the history of the two-year-old, 12-team C-USA, and finished 9-3 after a 12-game slate. Houston's three losses were by a combined total of eight points, though the Coogs did win a couple of nail-biters as well. Here's a look, then, at UH and USM, and how they stack up, position by position.
Some observers consider Kevin Kolb the best quarterback ever at UH. Given that he is #7 nationally in passing efficiency, #12 in total offense, and could lead UH to 11 wins, which would tie the highest total in school history, those observers may be right. He's largely responsible for the team's #6 national ranking in total offense, he is one of the most accurate passers in college football today, he thoroughly understands the offense, he seldom makes mistakes (he's only thrown three interceptions this year), he's able to identify defensive alignments and audible to the play that would work best, he's cool under pressure, and he's become a real field general, a leader in his final campaign.
Jeremy Young of USM has been hobbled much of the season with a nagging turf toe, but he's back to 100%. He's a solid quarterback, capable of scampering for yardage but generally content to roll the pocket and throw. He has completed 57% of his passes, most of which have been on shorter, possession routes. But USM will go over the top on occasion to keep defenses honest. Young can connect on deep balls, but he's more effective on short and intermediate throws. USM also has a prototypical drop-back passer in Stephen Reaves, but he hasn't shown a great deal of accuracy. That and his lack of mobility usually keep Young in the game and Reaves on the bench. Young's a decent quarterback, but like every other signal caller in C-USA, he is not in Kolb's class.
The Cougars' two backs probably complement each other as well as any duo in the country. Jackie Battle is the quintessential battering ram between the tackles, but he also has better wheels than the great majority of big backs. He averages five yards a carry. His counterpart is Anthony Alridge, one of the most electrifying players to wear the Cougar uniform in years, possibly ever. He has uncanny football speed and an uncanny rushing average as well: 11 yards per carry. He's a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball. Roshawn Pope, more of a darter, is also available, Roy Otis is a versatile fullback, and Jake Ebner is an outstanding blocker at H-Back.
USM has one of the league's top rushers in freshman Damion Fletcher. He is only 5-9, 180, but runs more like a 200-pounder. He is quick and instinctive. Look for USM to try to get him some seams off tackle. The Eagles' have a couple of reserve running backs, walk-on Conrad Chavone and Tory Harrison, who is the more talented of the two, but Harrison may miss the game with an injury. Fletcher is a good back, but he's a freshman, and with that offensive line, many RBs would gain a lot of yards. He's second in the league in rushing, but Battle and Alridge combined have almost 500 more yards, and Alridge has emerged as one of the most dynamic backs in the college game.
UH has two of the league's top 10 receivers. USM has no one in the top 10; in fact, the Eagles' leading receiver is tight end Shawn Nelson, and he has slightly more than half as many catches as Houston's second-leading receiver, Vince Marshall. Obviously some of these numbers are predicated on the teams' respective philosophies, but all one can do is look at production. These four Cougar receivers have more receptions than Damion Carter, USM's top wide out: Donnie Avery, Vincent Marshall, Jeron Harvey, and Biren Ealy. Averaging 16 yards per catch, Avery is almost as much a threat to score when he catches the ball as Alridge is when he runs it. And Vince Marshall is still as explosive as he was on that unforgettable touchdown run against Hawaii. But he's now an older, wiser receiver. Harvey, a long, lanky type, had a huge game against Southern Miss in the regular season, hauling in five passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Biren Ealy is capable, and Mark Hafner and Rodney Hannah can be weapons at tight end.
Speaking of tight end, Shawn Nelson is an excellent one. He'll likely be a first-team all-conference selection now that All-American Garrett Mills has left Tulsa for the NFL. Young is a threat that UH will have to keep a close eye on. Damion Carter only has 22 receptions, but he averages 16 yards per grab. The other receivers are solid but unspectacular. Chris Johnson has started the last two games; however, he, Josh Barnes, and Anthony Perine are interchangeable. None of the three has more than 19 grabs. USM is a running team with some competent receivers. In the literal sense, their group is in the same league with the Cougar catchers; in the metaphorical sense, they're not.
Randy Clements deserves recognition as at least a nominee for the Broyles Assistant Coach of the Year Award given what he has done with the injury-riddled Cougar offensive line this year. It's doubtful that any unit in the country has been hit as hard by injuries. The pillar of the UH unit, Sir Vincent Rogers, collapsed during the Oklahoma State game when an injury caused severe ligament and vascular damage. His reserves had already been lost for the year, and then the next game, starter Byron Alfred went down as well. So for two games in the middle of the season, Clements had to play third-teamers, shift guards to tackle, H-Backs to guard, and do whatever he could to piece together a makeshift offensive line; and that new line made it very tough to win a couple of games that UH ended up losing. Rogers is gone for the season, but Alfred is back, Akeroyd has made the adjustment to left tackle, though that is not his natural position, and reserve Mike Bloesch is playing well enough at guard. Sterling Doty has developed into a fine center. The team's best offensive lineman may now be right tackle Dustin Dickinson.
USM's interior linemen are especially talented. The Eagles' right guard, senior George Batiste, was first-team all-conference last year and is considered one of the top 15 draft prospects at his position. The other guard, Travis Cooley, was second-team All-C-USA in '05, and the center, Mickey D'Angelo, is on the Rimington Trophy Watchlist. Batiste is a mauler at 6-5, 309, while D'Angelo and Cooley are smaller but quick off the ball. For UH to be successful, Marquay Love must hold up his end of the bargain against these guys. Left tackle Chris Clark is a solid pass blocker, and Ryan McKean on the other side is competent, but both are smaller offensive linemen that are not on par with the three human mallets in the middle. That trio may give USM the best offensive line in C-USA.
The Cougars' defensive front has become one of the best in the league. Marquay Love is the top nose tackle in the conference, Cody Pree's return from injury against UTEP was a big reason UH held the Miners to 30 yards rushing, Ell Ash has tremendous ability and gets better each week as he learns the position (he was an offensive lineman), and Phillip Hunt is as athletic as any defensive linemen in the league. Love considers the middle his own and doesn't allow trespassers. Opponents have, however, picked up a ton of yards running off-tackle, but the coaches installed some schemes that have kept the 250-pound Hunt from being isolated as much; the Cougars have allowed only 97 yards rushing per game in their last three contests. And the defensive linemen are now getting pressure. Earlier in the year, it seemed as if quarterbacks had time to put on a headset and consult with the booth about what coverage the Cougars were in, but the development of Ell Ash has especially made a big difference in the pass rush.
USM has a solid defensive line, but it's not the strength of their defense. Tulsa got a great push up front against the Eagles, which allowed them to run the ball successfully all night. USM's ends, Robert Henderson and Matthew Chatelain, are around 245 but have good quickness. The Coogs will have to be wary of them, especially when Kolb empties the backfield. Their best on the inside is Martavious Prince, a 6-3, 285-pound fireplug. He's flanked by LSU transfer Sean Merrill, a 290-pounder. So the Eagles have some bulk in the interior, the one area of their defense where they do have any size. USM's front four is certainly capable of making plays, but their philosophy is more to hold their blocks and let their outstanding linebackers and strong safety flow to the ball and make tackles. Pretty close call here, but Love may be the best defensive lineman in the league, Pree and Ash have developed into very good players, and Hunt can run down deer.
With all four starters returning, many assumed Houston's linebackers would form one of the elite units in the conference, but that hasn't been the case. The inside linebackers have been slow to get outside and frequently take poor pursuit angles, and the outside linebackers have often been blown up by tight ends and tackles on running plays; moreover, the linebackers have been missing in action on the pass rush. The starting four—Lubojasky, Allen, Koehl, and Pahulu—registered one sack between them all year. Rodney Rideau has been getting more minutes on the inside and has played well. But the Cougar linebackers must pick it up; the Eagles may focus much of their attack on them.
Along with Tulsa, USM has the best group of linebackers in the conference. Gerald McRath, the Eagles' leading tackler, has developed into an all-conference player. James Denley is a 245-pound run stuffer in the middle, and Tokumbo Abanikanda has excellent speed on the outside. The only possible weakness is that, aside from Denley, the Eagle linebackers are small. Neither McRath nor Abanikanda is over 215 pounds. But they are exceptionally quick, and their lack of size hasn't hurt them except possibly against the better teams they've played, such as VPI (284 yards rushing) and Tulsa (252 yards rushing). USM's linebackers are also very good against the pass. Their starters have 10 sacks, and their speed enhances the Eagles' pass coverage.
This is the position where it's toughest to say who has the advantage. The Cougar cornerbacks, Willie Gaston and Kenneth Fontenette, cover the pass well, though, not short throws when giving ten-yard cushions. Both are better in coverage than they are against the run. Joseph Gonzales will be back this week after sitting out the past few games with a shoulder injury. Ernest Miller is a more athletic, faster player at strong safety, while Gonzales is solid against the run. Will Gulley is now completely recovered from an early-season injury, and has become the force at free safety the coaches hoped he would be. He is second in the conference in interceptions, and is as good against the run as the pass. Brandon Brinkley is a nickel back with a lightning-like break on the ball.
USM has a pair of senior cornerbacks, Caleb Hendrix and Jasper Faulk. Both are about 5-10, 185 and speedy. The Cougars may throw more at Faulk; Hendrix ranks just behind Gulley in interceptions. The star of the Eagle secondary is rover Brandon Sumrall. He was second-team all-conference last year, and will likely move up this season. Like many of his teammates, he's not that big, but the USM defense is built around quickness, and Sumrall has it in abundance along with a nose for the ball; he leads the team in solo tackles. The ability of Cougar receivers to shake him may be a big key. USM's free safety is LeVance Richmond, who has three interceptions on the season. Pretty tough decision here. Gulley and Sumrall cancel each other out, and neither team's corners stand out as being better than the other. The difference may be that USM doesn't have much depth, while UH has eight players that will see plenty of time. Close, but
Looking at the numbers only, special teams are pretty much a wash. Ben Bell has been fairly consistent for UH this year, converting on 10 of 12 field goals to rank second in the conference in percentage. Justin Laird's last couple of outings have helped him; in fact, he now averages three more yards per punt than USM's punter, Billy Barefoot—yes, that is his name. Anthony Alridge and Brandon Sumrall both average 21 yards per kickoff return, while USM's Jasper Faulk has a few more yards per punt return than Vince Marshall. Even so, USM makes next to no mistakes with their special teams, they do make big plays, and the Eagles are as opportunistic as any team in the league. UH has improved its special teams over last year, but USM makes a living off of them (or maybe off the miscues other teams make in them) even though it may not show up in the stats.
No denying it. In Conference USA, USM has a mystique, a swagger, that every other team would like to have. Those all-black uniforms have become like pall-bearer suits to visiting teams arriving for their own funerals. And even though the Eagles have been to the lowly New Orleans Bowl the past two years, they're still considered by many the top overall program in C-USA. Jeff Bower may be the best coach in the league. And USM has beaten UH once already; however, that may prove to be problematic. Seldom do two evenly matched teams play twice and have the same winner in both games. Additionally, UH has had a week off to rest while USM played Saturday. But the biggest intangible, and this intangible should become very tangible Friday night, is the home-field advantage. Both UH and USM feed off a good, boisterous home crowd. UH was 6-1 at Robertson, and undefeated at home in conference, winning league home games by an average of 23 points. USM was 5-1 at home with an overtime loss to East Carolina, their only setback at the Rock. Well, this one's in Houston, and there should be a sellout crowd or very close to it. In a big game in front of a sea of red at Robertson, UH is very tough to beat. Oklahoma State, which defeated Nebraska, was a fumble away from beating Oklahoma, and a point away from heating up Dennis Franchione's hot seat, couldn't do it. Tulsa, which was ranked #26 when the Hurricanes came into the Rob, couldn't do it. Chances are very few teams could, including USM.