Game 10 preview: Tulane
By: Jimmy Schofield
After an off-week to rest and recoup, your Houston Cougars (6-3, 4-2) look to continue their winning ways as they travel to the Big Easy to face the Tulane Green Wave this Saturday, November 18. Game time at Yulman Stadium is set for 3pm CST and will be televised via ESPNews.
Tulane (4-6, 2-4 in the AAC West) is led by second year head coach Willie Fritz, who’s 8-14 at Tulane and 25-21 in his three-plus years as a head coach at the FBS level (going 17-7 at Georgia Southern in 2014 and 15). The previous 17 years Fritz went 137-62 on the Division I and II levels (at Central Missouri and Sam Houston State from 1997 through 2013). Amazingly in his 25 seasons as a head coach (in which he’s amassed over 200 career wins), Fritz has never had back-to-back losing seasons. If he wants to avoid that this year the Green Wave will have to win out (they play at SMU on Nov. 25).
Offensively, the Green Wave runs a spread option attack using triple option principles. They’ll line the quarterback up in shotgun and pistol formations and utilize three wide receivers to spread the field. They’ll use what’s known as “orbit motions” from a wide receiver (motioning wide into the backfield from a wide receiver position) as the third leg of the triple option. In a conventional triple option scheme, a slot back, who lines up over the tackle, would usually be the “pitch man.” Instead of a fullback, Tulane uses their running back on ‘dive’ plays up the middle.
Along with the traditional option dives, keepers and pitches, Tulane adds in a heavy dose of the QB run game via the speed option and zone read option games. No matter the differences or similarities, Fritz and offensive coordinator Doug Ruse both show patience, continually calling inside zone runs to establish the interior and edge run game, which later sets up their play action passing game.
For the season the Green Wave average 27.2 points-per-game (76th nationally) and 379.6 yards of total offense (89th); 244.1 rushing (19th), 135.5 passing (121st). They’ll be facing a Houston defense, under first year coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, that allows 24.3 points-per-game (47th) and 431.7 total yards of offense (99th); 140.1 rushing (38th), 291.6 passing (124th).
The most dangerous player in any triple option based offense obviously the quarterback as he makes the final decision on where the ball is going, whether it’s the dive, the keeper or the pitch. Humble, Texas native, and former 4-star prospect Jonathan Banks (6-2, 215, Jr.), is that decision maker for the Green Wave after transferring from Independence Community College in Kansas. Last year Banks passed for 1,338 yards and 9 touchdowns while rushing for 615 yards and 7 TD’s in 9 games. He redshirted during the 2015 season at Kansas State after leading Contra Costa College in Texas to 9 wins during the 2014 season.
This is Banks first season running the option, but he has the characteristics needed to run the offense; namely being tough. He’s also elusive with the ball in his hands as his combination of size, strength and speed make him hard to take down. Banks has 476 yards on 113 carries and 7 TD’s through 9 games. He’s missed parts of games with shoulder issues and a fractured finger on his throwing hand yet still comes through, something you would expect from an option quarterback.
Banks legs also help him extend plays in the passing game as he’s passed for 1,232 yards (137 yards-per-game) but is only completing 54-percent of his attempts (89-for-163) as the Green Wave’s run first offense only attempts 18 passes-per-game on the season.
If Banks goes down, Jonathan Brantley (6-1, 195, So.) takes over. Another Houston native, Brantley is more a pure option quarterback as he averages 5.7 yards-per-rush (193 yards on 34 carries and 3 TD’s) while passing for 101 yards on 10-of-17 completions in 6 games as the backup. He’s tossed 1 interception to Banks’ 4.
Shouldering the load rushing wise for the Green Wave are running backs Dontrell Hilliard (6-0, 205, Sr.), Sherman Badie (6-0, 205, RSr.) and Darius Bradwell (6-1, 230, So.). Hilliard has over 2,500 rushing yards in over 30 career starts. The son of former New Orleans Saints running back Dalton Hilliard, Dontrell has a nice combination of speed and power. The Baton Rouge native is tough be bring down between the tackles as he’s the first option via the “dive” in their triple option element of their run game. He’s also reliable between the tackles as he hasn’t fumbled since November of 2014. Hilliard is also patient in the hole as he allows his linemen to set up their blocks for him. For the season he’s averaging nearly 100 yards-per-game (99.7 good for third in the AAC) as he has 997 yards on 179 carries and 11 TD’s. He’s a big play machine with a high of 75 yards on one run earlier in the season and averages 5.6 yard-per-carry. Badie leads the running back unit with a 6.1 ypc average, adding 323 yards on 53 carries and 3 TD’s as the change of pace back while Bradwell is a pure power back with 312 yards on 54 carries (5.8 ypc) and 2 TD’s.
The offensive line is on the small side, averaging 294 yards per man, as one would expect with an option based offense. They work well together in their inside and outside zone run schemes and like to get low on cut blocks but have surprisingly allowed 19 sacks in 10 games (tied for 60th nationally). The veteran of the group is John Leglue (6-7, 310, RJr.), who has 24 starts over 34 career games with 9 starts at right tackle this season. He moved over from left tackle due to early season injuries and the emergence of Tyler Johnson (6-3, 280, So.) who has started the last 7 games at left tackle after starting 4 of the last 5 to end the 2016 season. Center Junior Diaz (6-2, 300, RJr.) has 16 starts over the past three seasons but has missed parts of all three due to various injuries, but is still considered a mauler in the middle. Diaz is flanked by first year starters at both guard spots in Corey Dublin (6-4, 290, Fr.) at left guard and Dominque Briggs Jr. (6-3, 290, Jr.) at right guard. Dublin is a true freshman while Briggs is a JC transfer from Coffeyville Community College.
Diaz will have all he can handle in the middle due to the youth of both guards, and the superior play of Houston nose guard Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.). Big Ed continues to dominate the interior as he has 34 solo tackles (53 total), including 10 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. He has an additional 7 QB “hurries,” 3 passes defended via batting balls down at the line of scrimmage along with 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery so far, this season.
With Oliver stout up the middle, defensive ends Nick Thurman (6-4, 293, Sr.) and Reggie Chevis (6-2, 290, Sr.) have been able to fend off single blocks to maintain leverage up front as they combine for 7 tackles-for-loss and 2 sacks. After sitting out the first 7 games due to a foot injury, Jerard Carter (6-2, 285, Jr.) has added 4 solo tackles, including one for loss, in the past two games as a reserve defensive end. The veteran’s return can’t be understated as he adds depth, giving Oliver, Thurman and Chevis breathers up front as he can play all three spots along the defensive line. Payton Turner (6-5, 240, Fr.), Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, So.) and Zach Vaughan (6-4, 265, RJr.) will also continue seeing time giving D’Onofrio a solid 5 to 6-man rotation up front.
The problem in the Cougars run defense comes from the second level where the linebackers either over run their assigned gaps or lose leverage along the edge allowing huge plays. As mentioned previously on Tulane’s run game, even if they aren’t successful early on, they’ll continue pounding the interior so the back 7 of Houston’s defense will have to play disciplined.
Mathew Adams (6-1, 237, Jr.) has been slowed at one inside linebacker spot due to ankle issues but is still second on the defense in total tackles, 64, and solo, 38. With Adams being hindered the past few games, D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.) led the D in tackles for the last four games from the other inside linebacker spot. Though he continues to improve he still needs to read and diagnose plays faster for my liking as too many of his tackles are down field after positive gains. He also needs to play with better fundamentals as he’s responsible for outside contain when the defense is in a 4-man front. For the season Hines now has 86 total tackles (46 solo), 4 for loss, and two forced fumbles.
Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) still hasn’t generated the pass rush needed at the designated outside “rush” linebacker spot that Tyus Bowser occupied last year so well as he has just 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks on the season. He’s being used more as an underneath defender in zone blitz schemes lately as he’s undercut intermediate wide receiver routes, almost intercepting two passes in showing off his pure athleticism. Egbule is sixth on the D in both total and solo tackles with 44 and 24 respectively.
Look for youngsters Leroy Godfrey (6-2, 235, RSo.) and David Anenih (6-2, 228, Fr.) to continue to see more playing time at outside linebacker as the two youngsters continue making plays each time they see game action. For the season Godfrey has 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks with Anenih adding 2 each as well.
Austin Robinson (6-3, 235, RSr.) has also seen more playing time as of late with Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.) out last week due to an ankle injury. Robinson has 32 total tackles, 19 solo, 4 for loss and a sack in 4 starts. Williams has really improved his game as the outside linebacker/nickel back hybrid is second on the team in TFL with 8. He’s also probably the best tackler in space on the defense as he’s fourth in total tackles with 47 and third in solo stops with 36. It’s unknown if he’s going to be able to play Saturday as of this writing but Williams is very important as he ties in D’Onofrio’s zone schemes to the defensive front as he’s a versatile defender that can either blitz off the edge or drop back and cover slot receivers or tight ends.
When Tulane does go to their passing game, Terren Encalade (6-1, 190, RJr) is their best receiver with 24 receptions for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has the speed to burn corners deep as he averages 18 yards-per-reception lined up along the outside, but can get open against any type of coverage as he’ll line up in the slot to force matchups against linebackers or safeties, which is why it’s important that Khalil Williams plays Saturday. If not, free safety Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.) will probably get the honor when he’s lined up in the slot. Williams, who’s fifth on the D with 44 total and 25 solo tackles, leads the secondary with 9 passes defended, including 4 interceptions that he’s returned for 62 yards. Strong safety Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.) also has 4 picks (for 94 return yards) roaming the middle, though he’s been ineffective lately due to lingering shoulder issues, and has 41 total and 30 solo tackles. If G. Davis can’t go, Texas State transfer Brandon McDowell (5-9, 183, Sr.) will see more action as he pleasantly surprised two weeks ago against ECU with a 74-yard ‘pick-6.’
Darnell Mooney (6-1, 175, So.) moved from the slot to outside receiver and leads the team with 26 receptions for 403 yards and 2 TD’s. Jabril Clewis (6-2, 215, Jr.) is a clutch receiver from the slot with 13 receptions for 166 yards. Charles Jones II (6-4, 255, Jr.) is a tight end who has only 9 catches for 58 yards but has the best hands on the team according to Fritz, and is a nice blocker along the edge. Kendall Ardoin (6-5, 240, RJr.) has 5 receptions for 63 yards and is dangerously athletic as well. Hilliard is a dangerous receiver coming out of the backfield as he adds 8 receptions for 115 yards and 2 scores.
Due to injuries and honestly, ineffective play, D’Onofrio has his cornerbacks, Isaiah Johnson (6-3, 195, Jr.), Jeremy Winchester (5-11, 203, Jr.), Alexander Myres (5-10, 192, Jr.) and Joeal Williams (5-10, 190, RJr.), playing soft coverage for the most part this season. One strategy could be to load the box to shut down Tulane’s run game and play press coverage against the Green Wave receivers, but will he? Johnson has transitioned well from wide receiver as he leads the unit with 8 passes defended, 37 total and 27 solo tackles. Myres is next with 6 passes defended, 23 total, 13 solo and 1.5 TFL. Winchester adds 5 passes defended, 31 total, 21 solo, a TFL and a sack. Myres adds a fumble recovery while Winchester adds an interception. J. Williams has 14 total tackles (8 solo), a TFL and a sack as the fourth defensive back.
Over all, Tulane has a dynamic group of wide receivers for a team that doesn’t throw the ball a lot, so Houston’s secondary will have to play disciplined and not fall into the trap of letting deep balls get past them via play action. They’ll also have to play confident; get burned deep on one play? Get right back up and stop them on the next.
Offensively for the Coogs, under first year coordinator Brian Johnson, they average 30.1 points-per-game (55th) and 443.6 yards of total offense (31st); 178.6 rushing (54th), 265 passing (40th). Defensively for the Green Wave, under second year coordinator Jack Curtis multiple scheme, Tulane allows 29.2 points-per-game (81st) and 431 yards of total offense (97th); 220.2 rushing (117th), 210.8 passing (50th).
Curtis preaches attacking the opposing offensive front via movement up front (twists and stunts) and will bring pressure from every direction, including blitzing off the corner or nickel positions. The best way to defeat an aggressive scheme is to run the ball right at it, which I’m sure what Johnson and head coach Major Applewhite plan on doing Saturday with youngster D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.) making just his second start at quarterback. The Manvel native has been impressive thus far as he’s completed 28-of-43 passes (65-percent) for 489 yards and 5 TD’s to ZERO interceptions. He’s also rushed for 143 yards on 37 carries with an additional 4 TD’s though he’s only run 23 times for 97 yards with 3 TD’s as a QB, IE those 23 runs have come either the zone read option game, designed draws, or times where he’s simply pulled the ball down because of pressure in the pocket.
King completed 5-of-7 deep balls (passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air) against ECU because of an effective run game that amassed 142 yards on the ground, with King only adding 14. Running backs Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.) and Mulbah Car (6-0, 210, So.) are both sharing the load on the ground with Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) and his 5.6 yards-per-carry average (333 yards on 60 carries) on the shelf due to a dislocated elbow. While Catalon leads in yards with 596 (on 129 carries) and 8 TD’s, Car leads in yards-per-carry at 6.2 (293 yards on 47 carries and 3 TD’s).
Though the Coogs offensive line has improved as of late, injuries have also hampered them as both tackles, Josh Jones (6-5, 303, RSo.) at left and Na’Ty Rogers (6’5, 302, Sr.) at right have missed games due to knee issues. Jarrid Williams (6-6, 295, RSo.) has filled in admirably for Jones the past two games while Marcus Oliver (6-3, 300, Sr.) moved from his right guard spot to spell Rogers against ECU two weeks ago with Mason Denley (6-4, 308, Jr.) taking Oliver’s spot. Will Noble (6-4, 297, Jr.) has had injury issues at center but hasn’t missed a game while left guard Braylon Jones (6-3, 311, So.) has been the only lineman not affected by injuries so far, this season. The tight end duo of Alex Leslie (6-5, 240, Sr.) and Romello Brooker (6-3, 240, Jr.) have helped both tackles with chip blocks on edge rushers, something that will be needed against an aggressive Tulane defensive front.
The Green Wave play odd and even fronts behind down linemen Robert Kennedy (6-1, 270, RJr.), Quinlan Carroll (6-2, 220, RSr.) and Cameron Sample (6-4, 265, Fr.) rotating at defensive end with Sean Wilson (6-4, 305, Sr.) and Ade Aruna (6-6, 270, RSr.) at the two defensive tackle spots. Wilson leads the way with 4.5 TFL while Aruna, a preseason all-conference first team selection, has 3 sacks. Big Braynon Edwards (6-2, 330, RJr.) doesn’t play much but is a load to handle in the middle.
With the defensive front causing so much havoc, the two leading tacklers are middle linebacker Rae Juan Marbley (6-0, 245, Jr.) and weakside linebacker Zachary Harris (6-0, 225, RJr.), both of whom are fast and physical and will blitz up the A-gaps. Marbley, a defensive captain, is a sideline-to-sideline player who runs like he’s shot out of a cannon and has 80 total, 44 solo, 8.5 for loss and 2 sacks while Harris adds 59, 33 and 2 respectively. Luke Jackson (6-3, 245, RSr.) can either rush, as he’s second with 6 TFL and 3.5 sacks, or drop back in coverage as a reserve linebacker.
Houston’s wide receiver core of Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.), 58 receptions for 652 yards and 4 TD’s, Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr), 56 receptions for 695 yards and 2 TD’s, and Courtney Lark (6-2, 195, So.), 6 receptions for 143 yards and 2 scores, cannot give up on their routes or Tulane cornerbacks, Parry Nickerson (6-0, 180, RSr.) and Donnie Lewis Jr. (6-1, 190, RJr.), will go after the ball like it owes them money. Like the Terminator, these two do not quit as Nickerson will be playing in the NFL next year, leading the secondary with 4 interceptions and 6 total pass breakups. As their shut down corner, Nickerson is an all-conference competitor with 13 career interceptions. With the ball not thrown much in Nickerson’s direction, Lewis has shown his play-making ability as the former free safety is FIFTH nationally with 11 passes defended, while adding 3 interceptions. Nickel back Jerrod Franklin (6-0, 205, RSr.) is a solid tackler in space and is third on the defense in total tackles (56), solo stops (38), TFL (4.5), pass breakups (5) while adding an interception to show his versatility. Free safety Chase Kuerschen (6-1, 205) is a hard hitter over the middle as a true freshman with 2 forced fumbles and is third in total tackles (54) and second in solo tackles with 37. Strong safety Roderic Teamer Jr. (6-0, 210, Jr.) has 39 total and 25 solo tackles in 8 games as the strong headed veteran of the group.
Tulane doesn’t get much help from its special teams as they’ll rarely kick a field goal, instead going for it on fourth-and-short situations (15-for-22 on the season). Merek Glover (6-0, 195, So.) has only attempted 6 all season (7 total for the team), converting 5. Zachary Block (6-5, 200, Jr.) averages nearly 40 yards on his 46 punts, pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line 14 times while forcing another 17 fair catches. The big junior also kicks off and has just 16 touchbacks on 44 kickoffs as opponents average 17.8 yards on kick returns (14th) and 6.3 via punt returns (52nd). The Green Wave averages just 4.4 yards-per-punt return (112th) and 20.1 on kickoffs (88th) behind Sherman Badie’s 21.5.
The Coogs meanwhile, average 26.4 yards on kick returns (FIFTH) but their main culprit, John Leday (6-0, 200, Sr.), who averages 27.3 yards per kick return may still be out with concussion issues. McDowell averages 42.5 on 2 kick returns but only 3.4 on 11 punt returns as the Coogs are 122nd nationally averaging 3.3 yards-per-punt return.
Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) averages 41.9 yards-per-punt, pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line 21 times as the Coogs return unit allows just 5.5 yards-per-punt (38th) while Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) has 17 touchbacks on 51 kickoffs. The Cougars kick return unit allows 22 yards-per-kick return (82nd).
The Trinity Valley transfer is also reliable on field goals, connecting on 8-of-10 for the season.
Keys to the game
Turnovers and red zone efficiency. While Tulane is 30th nationally at a plus-5 in turnover margin (14 forced to 9 given up), the Coogs are 63rd (17 forced to 17 given up). Both teams are in the top-40 in interceptions defensively as the Coogs have 12 to the Green Wave’s 10. Houston has the advantage talent wise, so they can’t give Tulane a reason to stay confident via keeping them in the game by turning the ball over.
The Coogs can put the game away if they score touchdowns in the red zone as they rank 15th nationally in touchdown percentage at 73-percent (27-of-37) while the Green Wave allow opponents to cross the goal line 67-percent of the time (21-for-31), good for 103rd nationally.
Tulane meanwhile puts 7’s on the board 64-percent of the time (18-for-28), 52nd, while the “Third Ward Defense” allows touchdowns just 50-percent of the time (18-for-36), 22nd.
Bottom line; both defenses have had troubles stopping the run because of undisciplined play up front. The team that can put its opponent in third-and-long situations has the better shot at winning, and that will be Houston.
Houston – 34
Tulane – 17