2017 Game 2 Preview: Rice
By: Jimmy Schofield
Fresh off a 19-16 victory at Arizona last week to open the 2017 season, your Houston Cougars take to the friendly confines of TDECU Stadium (where they’ve won 15 straight) this Saturday Sept 16 for their home opener as they host cross-city rival, the Rice Owls. Game time is set for 7pm CST and will be broadcast via ESPN3.com.
The Coogs lead the all-time series in “The Bayou Bucket,” winning 29 of the 40 games played between the two programs separated by just seven miles. The Owls are coached by David Bailiff (78-85) who’s in his 11th season coaching at Rice and 14 seasons overall as a head coach after winning 21 games at Texas State from 2004-07. The Owls have struggled the past few seasons (only winning 3 games last year) after going to bowl games from 2012-14 with a Conference USA championship in 2013.
Under Bailiff, the Owls have been known as a hard hitting, physically tough football team, especially on offense. While those traits have been missing the past few years the Owls are looking to get back to that old school type of football this season.
After averaging just 25.2 points-per-game (94th) last year and 384.8 yards of total offense (86th); 169.7 rushing (72nd) and 215.2 (80th) passing, Billy Lynch was named sole offensive coordinator after splitting the job the previous three seasons. So far, this season the Owls have scored 38 points in their first two games, losing 62-7 in Sydney, Australia to Stanford before rebounding to win 31-14 at UTEP last week. After gaining just 240 yards against the Cardinal (146 rush) the Owls gained 437 against the Miners (306 rush).
Bailiff and Lynch want to establish the run game first in their “multiple” scheme by using shifting formations to create a numbers advantage to one side of the offensive line, IE outnumbering the defensive front on either side. One way they’ll accomplish this is to shift a tight end and wide receiver, right before the ball is snapped, from the right side to the left, or vice versa. Lynch will also use wide receivers in the run game as 11 Owls have carried the ball so far this season.
They’ll use motion to confuse defenders from reading their keys but will also use them via speed/jet sweeps. The Owls will also use the speed option and RPO’s along with trying to take deep shots via their play-action pass game much as Arizona did last week in passing for 219 yards against the Cougars, missing many wide-open passes downfield. Also look for the Owls to try and take advantage of the Coogs defense off the edge like Arizona did when they rushed for 152 yards against first year defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s unit.
The Owls offense is built around running back Sam Stewart (5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Jr.). Bailiff called him “an every down back during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, “he’s got great hands coming out of the backfield. He blocks well in pass protection. Sam was just outstanding.”
Stewart is averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry (160 yards on 31 attempts) thus far on the young season while also leading in receptions (6) and receiving yards (75). He’s also particularly dangerous via the “wheel route,” in which he’s matched up against a linebacker or safety in space.
The running back unit took a hit Saturday when backup running back Aston Walter (5-8, 200, Jr.), who had 77 yards on just 7 carries and a touchdown, was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury. Fortunately for the Owls, Nashon Ellerbe (5-9, 205, Jr.) filled in nicely as he’s averaged 5.7 yards-per-attempt on 11 carries with a TD. Big Emmanuel Esukpa (5-11, 230, So.) is called upon for third-and-short situations as he averages 4 yards on 8 carries thus far on the young season. Four Rice receivers also average 9.4 yards on 9 carries via speed sweeps as Lynch tries to get opposing defenses thinking about moving laterally before he attempts to gash opponents between the tackles and taking vertical shots.
The offensive line returns all five starters whom have 108 games of starting experience (including the first two games this season), led by preseason all-conference selection at center, Trey Martin (6-2, 300, RSr.), with 22 starts (14 at center after converting from defensive tackle after his true freshman season). The tackles are held down by Calvin Anderson (6-5, 285, RJr.) and Sam Pierce (6-6, 300, RJr.) along the left and right side with 26 and 14 starts respectively. At guard, Peter Godber (6-3, 300, Sr.), with 25 career starts returns on the left side while Kenneth Thompson (6-4, 320, Sr.) holds down the right after starting his tenth career game against Stanford after missing 2016 because of injury. One reason for the massive improvement in the run game for the Owls offense, besides caliber of opponent, was the return of guard Cory Klingler (6-4, 305, RJr.) who sat out the first game after recovering from a back injury at the end of last season. The son of famed UH QB Jimmy and nephew of David Klingler, started 11 games total last year (4 at center, 3 at right guard and 3 at left guard).
D’Onofrio didn’t seem as aggressive a play-caller as the former defensive coordinator did, but Cougars head coach Major Applewhite did say the game plans on both sides of the ball were simplified as they didn’t want to throw too much at the players for this first game. Simple or not, Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.) came to play as he always does. Big Ed led the defense with 11 tackles (1.5 for loss), forced a fumble and blocked a kick, though I still say that should be given credit to fellow defensive lineman Nick Thurman (6-4, 293, Sr.), who also added a TFL, after watching numerous times on the DVR, but I digress. Oliver showed his hustle on a tackle on Arizona’s QB ten yards down the field, something unheard of for a defensive lineman, but not for Oliver. Reggie Chevis (6-2, 290, Sr.) didn’t appear on the stat sheet but the three starting defensive linemen, along with reserves Zack Vaughn (6-4, 265, Jr.) and Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, So.) did enough to allow the linebackers to attack the caps and finish off plays at or around the line of scrimmage.
Inside linebackers Matt Adams (6-1, 237, Sr.) and D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.) added 9 and 8 tackles respectively, and will opportunities all season to lead the defense in tackles provided the down linemen keep them clean, which is what I expect against Rice. Edge rusher Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) had 4 tackles but 1 for loss and a sack and I look for him to get a few against Rice’s big but plodding offensive line. Leroy Godfrey (6-2, 235, So.) got on the field for a few snaps but didn’t have a tackle so hopefully he and reserve linebackers Roman Brown (5-11, 222, Jr.) and Austin Robinson (6-3, 235, Sr.) need to provide depth.
Leading the Owls offense is first year starter Sam Glaesmann (6-3, 210, RFr.), who won a quarterback duel over Jackson Tyner (6-5, 245, RSo.), who has more experience than the Waco Midway Panther product having started the season finale last year at Stanford and competed in 7 total games, completing 48-percent of his passes for 2 TD’s and an interception while rushing for 44 yards and a score. Glaesmann needs to work on his ball handling skills when under center, especially in the read option game along with his accuracy. For the season, he’s completed 47-percent of his 36 passes for 200 yards with a TD and a pick. His senior season in high school saw Glaesmann connect on nearly 64-percent of his passes so he does have the capability to be an accurate marksman. While known more as a pocket-passer, he’s more athletic than given credit for as he’s rushed for 21 yards (after 30 were taken away via 15 combined sacks and tackles-for-loss) on 16 carries and a TD with a long of 13 yards.
Glaesmann’s has huge targets at wide receiver especially at outside receiver in Lance Wright (6-3, 205, Jr.) and Kyle Granson (6-3, 220, So.), with Aaron Cephus (6-4 205, RFR.) and Cameron Montgomery (5-5, 160, Fr.) in the slot.
Tight end Jordan Myers (6-2, 225, RFr.) is the second leading receiver behind Stewart with 5 receptions for 45 yards, with Robby Wells (6-6, 260, Sr.) being more the inline blocking TE but is the third leading receiver with 4 catches for 19 yards. Cephus caught a 52-yard dart from Glaesmann on a post down the seam for the Owls only receiving TD this season. Montgomery is one to be careful of as well as he averaged 10 yards-per-carry his senior season at my alma mater, Stafford High School on the southwest side of town. The true freshman is a legit 10.3 100M guy who helped the Spartans to their second ever athletics championship, the 2015 outdoor Track & Field title. So far on the season he’s carries twice for 15 yards on speed sweeps.
Lynch will do everything he can to match up the Owls bigger wide outs against the smaller Cougars cornerbacks; Jeremy Winchester (5-11, 203, Jr.) and Alex Myres (5-10, 192, Sr.). Isaiah Johnson has the size at 6-3, 195, but not the technique as the junior is still learning the position after switching over from wide receiver during spring ball. Winchester was burned a few times but led the corners with 5 tackles while Johnson had 3 tackles with adding 1 and a fumble recovery.
Safeties Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.), Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.) and Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.) at the nickel added 11, 4 and 3 tackles respectively. Terrell Williams added 2 pass breakups while Khalil Williams had 2 TFL. Davis tied Oliver with 11 total tackles and had the game saving interception when he undercut a route late in the game. The three safeties will have to be in constant communication with the corners and linebackers as not to get beat via play-action, something that happened a few times against Arizona and last year. Of course, if the defensive front can pressure the Owls young signal caller, that point might be moot.
An old friend returns to HTown
The Owls defense has been bad over the past few years, putrid as a matter of fact. Last season they allowed 35.5 points-per-game (110th nationally) and 504.1 yards of total offense (123rd); 216.4 yards rushing (101st), 287.7 passing (123rd).
Good bye former UH defensive assistant and interim head coach (for the final game of the 07 season) Chris Thurmond, hello former Houston defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. Many Coogfans may remember Stewart as the DC during the magical 2011 season in which the defense finished the season ranked in the top-15 in red zone scoring, interceptions, tackles for losses and takeaways.
Stewart is an aggressive play caller via his 3-4 scheme and has two bookends in edge rushers Brian Womac (6-2, 250, Sr.) and Blain Padgett (6-5, 250, Jr.). Womac has 24 career TFL including 2 this year and a sack while Padgett has 10 career TFL and 50 tackles as a second-year starter. Zach Abercrumbia (6-2, 300, So.) and Carl Thompson (6-3, 310, Jr.) rotate at the nose with Roe Wilkins (6-3, 265, So.) and Preston Gordon (6-1, 280, So.) at defensive end. Abercrumbia has 1.5 TFL, a sack and a fumble recovery while Gordon and Wilkins have two combined pass pressures for a defensive front that’s allowed 76 points through two games (62 versus Stanford and 14 against UTEP). After surrendering 287 rushing yards against the Cardinal they allowed just 26 against the Miners, another team that likes to establish its physical dominance early. After giving up 306 yards through the air in their first game, the Owls allowed just 206 passing yards in their second.
The best player on the Owls defense, and perhaps in CUSA, is middle linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee (6-1, 235, Sr., the reigning conference defensive player of the year and preseason DPOY is an instinctual, downhill tackler whom has a nose for the ball. A year after registering 118 tackles (70 solo), including 8 for loss and 3.5 sacks, the Strake Jesuit product leads the defense this season with 19 total tackles (6 solo), 2.5 TFL and a sack with a pass defended. Fellow inside linebacker D.J. Green (6-1, 220, Sr.) adds 7.
The Cougars offensive line of (from left to right); Josh Jones (6-5, 303, So.), Braylon Jones (6-3, 311, So.), Will Noble (6-4, 297, Jr.), Marcus Oliver (6-3, 300, Sr.) and Na’Ty Rogers (6-5, 307, Sr.) will have to continue with their strong interior blocking via their man and zone blocking schemes. Running backs Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) and Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.) had 162 yards on 32 carries (5.1 yards-per-carry average) and a touchdown (by Birden) in their first game. 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).
The one thing that worries me big time is depth, or lack thereof. Auburn transfer Deon Mix (6-4, 315, Sr.) was on the “game participation” chart but to my knowledge he only played special teams, meaning that the starting five played all 69 snaps. Mason Denley (6-4, 308, Jr.), another multiple game starter at both guard spots over the past two seasons didn’t see any game action either. 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.
The line did give quarterback Kyle Allen (6-3, 211, RJr.) sufficient time in the pocket, allowing ZERO sacks while giving the former consensus number one QB recruit time to pass for 225 yards, completing 25-of-32 passes with a TD but two interceptions. The first was forgivable, a deep pass on fourth down that basically acted as a punt. The second his receiver fell down, but he still stared him down too long before throwing.
The timing passing game was efficient for the most part; deep outs were there all night as were comebacks and crossers over the middle. Slot receiver Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.) once again led the way with 59 yards on 9 receptions. Outside receiver Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr.) 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 (6-0, 200, Sr.) 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 (6-4, 220, Sr.) 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. Unfortunately he’ll be out for a few weeks with a knee sprain. Keith Corbin (6-3, 193, So.) will take Jefferson’s place as he’ll look to build on a performance in which he 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).
Tasked with trying to stop this receiving core is a veteran Rice secondary led by J.T. Ibe (6-0, 200, Jr.). The multiple year starter at strong safety is second in tackles with 9 tackles (6 solo). Cole Thomas (6-1, 200, Sr.) starts his second year at free safety and leads the backend with 3 passes defended while Martin Nwakamma (6-1, 210, Jr.) adds 5 tackles from his nickel back spot in his first season as a starter. The corner backs will be V.J. Banks (6-1, 195, Sr.), with 7 career passes defended in his second year starting on the field side and Justin Bickham (6-1, 195, RSo.) on the boundary after redshirting last year due to a leg injury after a promising true freshman season. Stewart isn’t afraid to use his corners as blitzers with Bickham adding 1.5 TFL and a sack.
Special teams contributed greatly to the win over Arizona with Thurman blocking an Arizona field goal attempt, Leday’s 81-yard kick return and nice hang time on 6 punts by “The puntah,” Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) who averaged 43.3 yards and placed 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 (5-9, 183, Sr.) returned his only punt for six yards and place kicker Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) 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.
The Owls meanwhile average just 17.5 yards on 4 kick returns (57 yards on 3 returns by Nashon Ellerbee) but 14.3 yards on 3 punt returns behind 30 yards on 2 returns by Ellerbee, again. Their coverage units allow 7.8 yards on 5 punt returns and no kicks have been returned as strong legged place kicker Jack Fox (6-1, 215, Jr.) has 7 touchbacks on 8 kickoffs (with one kick out-of-bounds). Fox, in his second year as the punter, has boomed 11 punts for a 45.3 yard average, with 3 at 50-plus yards and pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line twice. Will Harrison (5-10, 175, Fr.) has connected on his lone field goal attempt from 36 yards.
Keys to the game
“Penalties, turnovers and red zone touchdowns, oh my!” This should be my mantra as I harp on it on every game preview piece, but like most clichés those three factors always hold true in determining the winners from the losers.
The Coogs had 10 penalties for 110 yards but Applewhite brushed many of them off during his weekly media press conference on Monday saying (via uhcougars.com), “I’ll eat some of the aggressive penalties, in terms of face mask holding, things like that. That’s going to happen, but we have to work to use proper technique to where we don’t put ourselves in those positions. Whether it be pass interference calls or holding calls or things like that, but a lot of stuff to clean up.” The Owls have 10 penalties for 76 yards in two games so the Coogs will have to play smarter Saturday night.
The Coogs turnover margin is even at two with two on both offense (the two Allen interceptions) while forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass on defense. Houston is at minus-3 in points surrendered off turnovers however, something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. The Owls meanwhile are at a minus-2 on the early season turnovers wise, forcing only a fumble while putting the rock on the ground twice and tossing an interception themselves.
Finally, Houston had five red zone possessions against Arizona but only crossed the goal line twice for a 40-percent TD conversion percentage. While it’s too early on the season to make anything of this, they need to perform in the red area more like the 67-percent of last year (34th nationally) when they scored 43 TD’s on 64 red zone possessions. Defensively they allowed Arizona to score 7’s on just one of their three possessions for 33-percent, much like their 31-percent of last year (19-for-34) which ranked them 31st.
Rice has scored TD’s on 3-of-5 red zone attempts but has allowed opponent’s to be successful on 7-of-8, which could be a huge factor in Saturday’s game. Whichever team scores more “7’s” than “3’s” will ultimately be the winner.
With bigger lines on each side of the ball and more talent along with playing in front of the home folks, the offense opens up it creativity wise with the Cougars dominating in the trenches leading to a blowout after a close first half
Houston 38 Rice 14