Houston Scouting Report: Offense
BBVA COMPASS BOWL SCOUTING REPORT:
THE HOUSTON OFFENSE
A bowl game is its own entity. Rhythm, momentum, motivation – these and other intangibles exist on very different levels in a bowl game when compared to the 12-week march of the regular season. Playing one neutral-site game against an unfamiliar opponent, five weeks after the conclusion of a long three-month odyssey, bears little resemblance to the process of finishing one SEC Saturday and then getting ready for the next one. "Expect the unexpected" is generally a sage piece of advice as far as bowl games are concerned.
The 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl should fit into this dynamic.
The following statement might seem like a cliché-laden analytical cop-out, but it's merely an attempt to reflect the reality of the situation Vanderbilt's defense faces in Birmingham: Who the heck knows what kind of offense the Houston Cougars will bring to Legion Field on Jan. 4?
The biggest question looming over this game (not just the matchup between Houston's offense and Vanderbilt's defense, but the game in sum) is as follows: How will a second-tier team from the American Athletic Conference (behind the first tier of UCF-Louisville-Cincinnati) fare against a third-tier SEC team (behind the first tier of Alabama-Auburn and the second tier of Missouri-South Carolina-LSU)? It's true that motivation often affects bowl-game outcomes, but one can place only so much stock in the "we didn't want to be in this bowl game" card. Realistically, this is indeed a football laboratory in which the relative heft and merit of The American and the SEC will be measured. This is the best reason to claim that, yes, uncertainty is the proper analytical mindset to bring to this contest.
However, general conference comparisons have to give way to a more specific assessment of teams and players at some point, so here is an attempt to examine Houston's offense.
If you watched Houston play offense against Brigham Young or Rutgers this season, you would have gained the impression that the Cougars were destined for greatness in 2013, and that their playmaking capabilities would have continued to spill into full flower against most defenses in The American. However, that's just not how the rest of this past autumn unfolded for UH and head coach Tony Levine. Houston turned in a good season as a team, but the offense is what held the Cougars back, preventing them from winning the conference and securing the BCS bowl the program almost plucked in 2011 under a head coach you might have heard of: Kevin Sumlin. (The Cougars lost the Conference USA Championship Game to Larry Fedora and Southern Mississippi, amidst reports that Sumlin was leaving Houston to become the new coach at Texas A&M. No Conference USA team has made a BCS bowl to this day, with UCF doing the deed only after leaving C-USA last summer.)
Houston's defense limited the best teams in The American – UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati – to 19, 20, and 24 points, respectively. The UCF and Louisville games were played on the road. Levine and his staff could not have asked for more on that side of the ball. It was the offense that faltered, scoring 14, 13 and 17 points in those three losses. What went wrong for Houston in those losses? Put it this way: The right trends ceased to exist and the wrong trends continued to crop up for this offense. The timing could not have been worse.
First, the right trends ceased to exist. Houston played 11 FBS games in 2013 (plus one game against an FCS team). In those 11 games, the Cougars outrushed and outgained their opponents five times apiece while gaining more first downs in four games. Houston did not lose on any of those occasions. The Cougars went 5-0 in the games when they outrushed and outgained their opponents, and they went 4-0 in the games when they collected more first downs than their foes.
Against the UCF-Louisville-Cincinnati triumvirate, Houston didn't win a single statistical battle of note. The Cougars couldn't outrush any of those teams. They couldn't gain more total yardage. They couldn't accumulate more first downs. They went 0-for-3 on three separate occasions.
Two numbers from Houston's losses to the "Big Three" in The American should catch Vanderbilt's attention: 74 and 33. Those numbers refer to Houston's total amounts of rushing yards in the losses to Louisville and Cincinnati. The Cardinals and Bearcats dominated the line of scrimmage, forcing freshman Houston quarterback John O'Korn to throw the ball in predictable passing situations. As soon as the Cougars became predictable against good defenses, they were toast. It's that simple.
Second, the wrong trends continued to crop up. How much did Houston's offense fail to help out its defense in UH's three biggest conference games of the season? It's true that time of possession is beginning to be seen – and rightly so – as a not-that-important statistic in the wider world of football analysis. Yet, in the aggregate, it can still mean something, and it definitely meant a lot (of harm) for Houston in its three "American failures."
Despite collecting a 7-4 record against FBS opponents, Houston finished with more time of possession in only one of those 11 contests. Against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati, Houston didn't merely lose the time of possession battle; it was destroyed. Houston allowed the Knights, Cardinals and Bearcats to hold the ball for at least 35 minutes. That's right – Houston's three toughest opponents in The American amassed possession advantages of at least 10 minutes. The Cougars committed fewer turnovers in all three of these games and still couldn't make much of a dent in this statistical realm, a rather remarkable reality that caught up with this offense.
Houston finished the FBS portion of its season (11 games) with a plus-20 turnover differential, but against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati, the Cougars simply couldn't translate takeaways into points. After thriving for a brief period from late September through the middle of October against weaker opponents, Houston's offense ran into a back-loaded second half of the schedule. That portion of the slate represented a brick wall for this team, especially the rushing attack, which could not take pressure off an increasingly flustered O'Korn. A no-show from Houston's offensive line against Louisville and Cincinnati was hard on every member of this unit, but O'Korn felt the impact more than anyone else. O'Korn looked like the freshman he in fact was (and is) during a rough month of November.
There are a few more odds and ends to mention about this offense as Vanderbilt tries to stop it in Birmingham:
-- Not only did this offense deal with a back-loaded schedule; Houston enjoyed two bye weeks in the first seven weeks of the season (Sept. 14 and Oct. 5). The team did not have a single bye week after Oct. 5, and the accumulated wear-and-tear of the season appeared to take some starch out of the Cougars' offensive front, not to mention O'Korn as well.
-- On drive starts from the 50 to an opponent's 36 (in 11 FBS games), Houston scored touchdowns on only four of eight occasions.
-- On drive starts from an opponent's 35 to an opponent's 21, Houston scored one touchdown in three possessions.
-- On drive starts inside an opponent's red zone, Houston scored touchdowns on three of six possessions.
-- When Houston gained fewer first downs, total yards, and rushing yards than its opponent in 2013, the Cougars' record was the same: 2-4.
-- When Houston gained fewer passing yards than its opponent in 2013, the Cougars' record was 3-2.
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