Game 1 analysis: Arizona
By: Jimmy Schofield
photo courtesy uhcougars.com
Your Houston Cougars made their 2017 debut with a tough, hard fought 19-16 victory at Arizona Saturday night under first year head coach Major Applewhite. Let’s look at all three phases of the game.
The Coogs had 383 yards of total offense; 158 rushing, 225 yards passing. Starting quarterback Kyle Allen completed 25-of-32 passes with a touchdown but two interceptions. First year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson called a nice game overall, though conservative with the lead in the second half, taking what the Wildcats defense gave his unit. His philosophy was simple; establish an interior run game (something that was lacking last year) then spread the Wildcats defense wide with swings and screen passes to empty box. Once the box loosened up run on the interior some more then go deep (stressing all three areas of field; perimeter, interior, deep). The Coogs offense also mixed up their tempo, going slow at times then fast (up-tempo) when getting into a rhythm. I would have liked to see more power runs late, a called screen to the outside on 3rd-and-1 late in the fourth when trying to run out the clock was very questionable to me, especially with the running game being so effective. But that’s just nitpicking on a coach who’s calling his first game.
Johnson also used different formations to get the ball to his playmakers in space, using various 3-x-1, 2-x-2 or quad (4 receivers to one side) sets. The first-year offensive coordinator also used pre-snap motions and shifts to confuse the Wildcats young defense. Allen had a nice first game overall, showing nice accuracy (connecting on a few deep balls after missing his first few), but stared down his receivers on his two interceptions.
The running back combination of Dillon Birden and Duke Catalon had 162 yards on 32 carries (5.1 yards-per-carry average) and a touchdown (by Birden). Birden was running between the tackles well early, finishing the night with 83 yards on 14 carries (5.9 ypc) while Catalon started slowly but finished strong toting the rock 18 times for 79 yards (4.3 ypc). Allen showed his athleticism a few times early on draws or basic scrambles but finished with minus-2 yards on 4 carries, mainly because of a fumble he almost lost at the Wildcats 1-yard line on the Cougars second possession of the game.
The timing passing game was efficient for the most part; deep outs were there all night as were comebacks and crossers over the middle. Linell Bonner once again led the way with 59 yards on 9 receptions. Steven Dunbar also had a nice game with 6 catches for 72 yards. Both blocked well in the screen and run game as well. Bonner’s touchdown came on a 3-yard pass to the outside with Dunbar leading him into the end zone giving the Coogs a 10-3 lead in the second quarter. After sitting on the bench for years (some because of injury, some because of lack of production), John Leday contributed as the third starter and caught 4 balls for 6 yards. They were technically passes because the ball went forward but they were really runs on “speed sweeps” to “widen the box.” Arizona State transfer Ellis Jefferson was targeted once, but was not able to come up with what would have been a touchdown reception as he came down on his side and had to leave the game. Keith Corbin caught a deep post for 49 yards and had a few nice blocks along the perimeter, though he whiffed on a few as well, causing minimal yardage on screens. Tight end Romello Brooker had a nice game, using his 6-foot-3 inch, 240-pound frame effectively in the run game, sealing off the edge, but showed his athleticism as he shifted out to the slot a few times in 3 or 4 receiver sets. The junior had a reception for 12 yards on the night. The running backs added 27 yards on 4 catches (with Birden catching 3 passes for 22 yards). Overall the wide receivers had a nice game, but had a few too many drops for my liking, and two pass interference calls (one on Jefferson and one on Corbin for using their hands to free themselves of defenders).
The offensive line unit of (from left to right); Josh Jones, Braylon Jones, Will Noble, Marcus Oliver and Na’Ty Rogers also played well with strong interior blocking via their man and zone blocking schemes. They also gave Allen sufficient time in the pocket, allowing ZERO sacks. The one thing that worries me big time is depth, or lack thereof. Auburn transfer Deon Mix was on the “game participation” chart but to my knowledge he only played special teams, meaning that the starting five played all 69 snaps. The better college programs play 7 to 8 offensive linemen, rotating them throughout the game to keep the “big uglies” fresh. Make no mistake, this team can’t with playing only five offensive linemen all season.
First year defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s unit started out fast, forcing consecutive three-and-outs of Arizona’s offense, but got tired in the second half only to be saved by turnovers. Over all they allowed the Wildcats to amass 371 yards total offense, just 12 fewer than the Coogs. They had 152 yards on 39 carries (3.9 ypc) and a touchdown. The passing game was hit-or-miss, with Arizona’s quarterbacks missing many easy throws against Houston’s loose zone coverage, completing 22-of-37 passes for 219 yards with an interception and fumble by the Wildcats two signal callers.
Of course, when speaking of the “Third Ward Defense,” it all starts with “Big Ed.” Oliver was a one-make wrecking crew Saturday night, as he always is, amassing 11 total tackles (8 solo), including one-and-half for loss. What makes Oliver so great, besides his combination of strength and speed, is his motor never quits. Much like the Texans J.J. Watt, he never gives up on a play. That wasn’t more evident on his forced fumble of the Wildcats QB Brandon Dawkins, who after scrambling for 10 yards, Oliver caught up to him knocking the ball loose from behind. The sophomore has a great “get off,” can split double teams and sheds and disengages from one-on-one blocks causing chaos at the line of scrimmage. In D’Onofrio’s 3-man front, Oliver played mainly on the nose (though he did switch to both end spots a few times), and was flanked by Nick Thurman and transfer Reggie Chevis. The two interior linemen combined for a TFL (by Thurman) but were able to occupy blockers, allowing linebackers and safeties to get to the LOS unimpeded for the most part. Just like with the offensive line, my major concern is a lack of depth upfront. Zach Vaughan and Aymiel Fleming were the only defensive linemen to play in reserve, and Fleming didn’t sub in until the fourth quarter (by my eyes).
The linebackers had a subpar game in my opinion as Matt Adams, Emeke Egbule and D’Juan Hines weren’t involved enough for my liking. Sure, they had a combined 21 tackles (Hines with 9 and Adams with 8), 19 solo, but most of them weren’t until Arizona offensive players gained yards downfield. In other words, they weren’t at or behind the line of scrimmage as Adams had half a tackle for loss with Egbule adding a tackle-for-loss and a sack as Tyus Bowser’s replacement at the outside rush linebacker spot. A lot of this had to do with scheme though, as D’Onofrio didn’t seem as aggressive as the Coogs former defensive coordinator in attacking the offensive line with aggressive blitz schemes. Though stout along the interior with a 3-man front, a fourth (usually a linebacker), or sometimes a fifth (usually a safety) didn’t commit to the rush until the ball was snapped. These disguised blitz looks garnered little pressure as I’m sure D’Onofrio was trying to cover up for the unit’s lack of experience in the back end.
Arizona had better success when attacking the perimeter in the run game, and exploited the middle of Houston’s loose zone as there was little to no coverage by the linebackers of safeties on the Wildcats slot receivers. Arizona started going with more spread looks (3 and 4 receiver sets) in order to exploit the intermediate areas of the field later in the game as well. And not to beat a dead horse, but where were the subs? It was obvious the starting 11 were getting worn down late in the game as the only reserves were Leroy Godfrey for a few snaps at outside linebacker and Collin Wilder at safety and Jeremy Winchester at corner. Again, this was to my untrained eye as I expected players like Austin Robinson among the linebacker core and Ka’Darian and Javian Smith along with Patrick Rosette in the secondary. These were players I had been hearing good things about during spring ball and fall camp, but didn’t see the field for meaningful playing time, except on special teams.
Dawkins missed some easy wide-open throws or otherwise Arizona might have won this game as cornerbacks Isaiah Johnson, Alex Myers and reserve Jeremy Winchester were picked on throughout the night. Safeties Terrell Williams, Garrett Davis and nickel back Khalil Williams provided little intermediate coverage until Davis undercut a route and intercepted a pass at 3:49 mark of the game, preserving the 19-16 lead. The three safeties were much better in run support, with Davis leading the defense with 11 total tackles (9 solo). Khalil Williams added two TFL with Winchester adding 5 tackles, Johnson adding 3 and Myers recovering the fumble that Oliver forced in the third quarter. Terrell Williams had 2 pass breakups with Khalil adding one.
Special teams contributed greatly to this win with Thurman blocking an Arizona field goal attempt (though the TV announcers said it was Oliver). Leday’s 81-yard kick return set up a red zone opportunity that led to a touchdown by Birden and a 17-10 lead just before halftime when it looked like Arizona swung the momentum in their favor after tying the game at 10.
The “Aussie,” Dane Roy had nice hang time on his 6 punts, averaging 43.3 yards and placing two inside the 20-yard line. More importantly he only allowed Arizona’s dangerous return man, Shun Brown, one return for two yards. Texas State transfer Brandon McDowell returned his only punt for six yards and place kicker Caden Novikoff had three touchbacks in four kickoffs. The Trinity Valley Community College transfer hit on one of his two field goal attempts, connecting from 25 yards but missing from 38.
Over all, anytime you can win on the road against a Power-5 conference foe you’ll take it. But the Cougars EXPECT to win these types of games. And honestly, Arizona isn’t that good in my opinion, coming off a 3-9 record and not expected to be much better this season. The team has a lot of clean up and Applewhite knows this. The team had 10 penalties for 110 yards, only one sack, and scored touchdowns on just two of five red zone opportunities. For a first game of the season, with a new coaching staff, new team leaders and coming off the adversity of Hurricane Harvey, it was a nice overall first win of the 2017 season. Stay logged into Coogfans as I’ll break down the next opponent, the Rice Owls, in the Coogs home opener next Saturday later in the week.