Houston Scouting Report: Defense

After seeing UCF cruise past Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, Vanderbilt might be concerned that Houston held UCF's offense to only 19 points this season. Just how good is Houston's defense? UCF's Fiesta Bowl explosion adds weight to the claim that the Cougars can defend at a high level.


BBVA COMPASS BOWL SCOUTING REPORT:

THE HOUSTON DEFENSE


With the news that Austyn Carta-Samuels will not play in the 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl, the Vanderbilt Commodores and head coach James Franklin find themselves caught in liminal space. This seems scary, and to an extent it might be. Yet, the tension attached to living in a threshold can give way to great happiness and satisfaction, and that's Vanderbilt's aim in Birmingham on the first Saturday of the new year.

The great spiritual teachers, the mystics who have walked the earth and left behind much wisdom for us to contemplate, would say that liminal space – though uncomfortable for prolonged periods of time – can ultimately give birth to great growth and personal enrichment. Learning how to live in a threshold enables a human person to eventually bust through that threshold and complete a journey through a perilous portion of one's life. Learning how to live in an in-between context – with all the uncertainties such an image suggests – enables a person to walk over the coals of anxiety and stress, emerging safely on the other side.

Patton Robinette, this is your life on Jan. 4, 2014, as you walk into the world of bowl-game pressure against a Houston defense that, while hardly elite, is certainly better than average.

Franklin, as he prepares Robinette for this game, will tell his backup-turned-starting quarterback two things that naturally exist in tension with each other:

A) Don't be afraid to make plays and trust your ability.

B) No matter what else you do, don't turn the ball over… PLEASE!


This is the world of the in-between situation, the liminal space occupied by Robinette against Houston. Why this focus on being caught between two ideas? Let's explain.

Houston's record was a modest 8-4, but the Cougars' defense carried most of the workload for this team. Here's the whopping stat to diminish all other stats about the UH defense in 2013: The Cougars did not play a single game against an FBS team in which they committed more turnovers than the opposition. That's right – Houston finished with a positive turnover differential in nine of 11 FBS games, and finished even in the other two. That's pretty remarkable, especially when one realizes that Houston committed 16 turnovers in those 11 games, roughly 1.5 per contest. The Cougars' defense collected 22 interceptions and 14 fumbles, a total of 36 takeaways, or an average of almost 3.5 per FBS game.

It's true that Houston's defense crumbled in a 47-46 loss to Brigham Young, but that was the only genuinely bad outing for head coach Tony Levine's pack of defenders. Houston became the most surprising team in the American Athletic Conference relative to preseason expectations by finding answers again and again on this side of the ball. Houston could have been 10-2 or 11-1 if its offense had been able to do its fair share, but the Cougars' defense couldn't control that variable. This segment of the UH roster covered itself in glory this season, and Vanderbilt will have to respect the ballhawking ability of the Cougars' defense on Saturday afternoon.

Flowing from the above point, Houston's defense didn't just keep this team competitive in most of the four games the Cougars lost. Three of Houston's four losses came against the top three teams in the American Athletic Conference: UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati. Houston's defense forced three turnovers against UCF and Cincinnati while limiting Louisville and Teddy Bridgewater to only 20 points. UH's maximum number of points allowed against these three quality foes was 24 points (Cincinnati). You can legitimately criticize the depth and strength of The American, but Houston's inability to finish higher in that conference was not a product of the defensive side of the ball. Only once – against South Florida – did Houston's defense wobble in a conference game this past season.

Let's also emphasize this point as well: Since Houston spent previous seasons in Conference USA, most of its opponents in The American were not familiar ones. This refutes the notion that the Cougars' defense thrived due to knowing the tendencies of their opponents. It's true that Memphis, UCF and SMU accompanied Houston on the path from C-USA to The American, but a majority of the Cougars' AAC competitors in 2013 were Big East exiles, not C-USA escapees. Levine's defense simply studied hard and played very effectively this season.

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When Robinette surveys the Houston defense in this game, he will – like any other quarterback – need to feel pressure in the pocket and make sure that the alarm clock in his head has a short timer. If structured plays and first reads get taken away by the Cougars, Robinette could very easily roll outside the pocket, trying to make an improvisational play. In these scramble situations, the strength of Houston's defense will test Vanderbilt's quarterback.

The Cougars' back seven (not so much their front seven) forms the backbone of this defensive unit. Five separate defensive backs have plucked at least two interceptions this season, and three of them have snagged at least four picks. The two most complete defenders on this team are defensive backs Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald. Stewart has cradled four interceptions, McDonald five (leading the team). Stewart registered 61 solo tackles and assisted on 38 others, while McDonald notched 51 solo tackles and 40 assisted tackles. Stewart also forced two fumbles, showing the extent to which his influence flows through Houston's defense. Robinette has to know where Stewart and McDonald are at all times.

The same thing goes for Houston's two foremost tacklers, who – though not as dynamic as Stewart in particular – still manage to find the ball and ballcarrier on a relentlessly regular basis.

Derrick Matthews and Efrem Oliphant make Houston's collection of linebackers a formidable one. Matthews is first on the team in solo tackles with 71 and second in both total tackles (110) and tackles for a loss of yardage (12). He leads the Cougars with seven sacks and has forced two fumbles. Yes, he also has an interception to his credit. Oliphant – who works so well in concert with Matthews – is second on the team in solo tackles (65) and first in both total tackles (123) and tackles for loss (12.5). Oliphant has tallied 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season. If Robinette can understand the difference between a sensible risk – putting the ball where no Houston defender can catch it – and an adventurous risk (trying to fit a downfield pass in a tight window in the middle of the field, with credentialed Cougars on the prowl), Vanderbilt's chances of winning this game will go way up.

Other notable contributors to Houston's defense include:

-- Linebacker Steven Taylor: 33 solo tackles, 75 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 interception.

-- Defensive back Thomas Bates: 38 solo tackles, 53 total tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles.

-- Defensive end Tyus Bowser: 26 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble.

-- Defensive tackle Jeremiah Farley: 25 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles.

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