Game 6 preview: Tulsa
By: Jimmy Schofield
Coming off their best performance of the season, your Houston Cougars take to the road to face the Tulsa Hurricane this Saturday October 14. Kickoff at H.A. Chapman Stadium is set for 3pm CT and will be televised via ESPNews.
The Hurricane (1-5, 0-2 in American Athletic West play) are led by third year head coach Phillip Montgomery. After making bowls in Montgomery’s first two seasons and winning 10 games last year, the Hurricane are struggling, having lost four in a row. They’re especially inept on defense, allowing 44 points-per-game (126th out of 130 FBS programs) and 587.5 yards-per-game of total offense (129th); 347.8 rushing (130th) and 239.7 passing (90th). Opponents are almost gaining a first down on each play, averaging 8.2 yards-per-play (130th).
Of course, those stats are a bit skewed. After facing a pass happy Oklahoma State team to start the season, the (former “Golden”) Hurricane have faced three consecutive option attacks in New Mexico, Navy and Tulane.
While the Cougars don’t run the option under head coach Major Applewhite and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, they are coming off their best performance rushing of the season, having gained 265 yards on 40 total carries (6.6 ypc) after having averaged 140 yards over their first five games. For the season the Coogs are averaging 27.2 points-per-game (80th) and 433 yards total offense (53rd); 165 rushing (66th) and 268 yards passing (38th).
The Coogs offensive line of (from left to right) Josh Jones (6-5, 303, RSo.), Braylon Jones (6-3, 311, So.), Will Noble (6-4, 297, Jr.), Marcus Oliver (6-3, 300, Sr.) and Na’Ty Rogers (6’5, 302, Sr.) created huge holes last week against an SMU defense that had been barely surrendering over 100 yards-per-game entering the game. As a result, running back Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.) had a career game, rushing for 177 yards with an 8 yards-per-carry average plus 2 touchdowns. With Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) out due to a neck injury, Mulbah Car (6-0, 210, So.) did a great job backing up Catalon as he ran 67 yards and averaged 7.4 yards-per-carry himself, often punishing defenders at the second level after exploding through those huge holes up front. For the season Catalon is averaging 71.8 yards-per-game (359 yards on 66 carries) while Birden adds 36.2 yards (145 on 28 carries).
Quarterback Kyle Postma (6-2, 200, Sr.) seems to be settled in as the starting quarterback and is second with 165 total rushing yards on 28 carries, good for a 5.9 ypc average. He’s completing nearly 68-percent of his passes (55-for-81) for 547 yards with 4 TD’s but needs to be careful of forcing balls into tight windows (3 interceptions already) as he’ll be seeing plenty of zone coverage against Tulsa defensive coordinator Bill Young’s 4-2-5 scheme.
Again, so far Tulsa’s defensive stats are skewed having played three option teams, but in their first three games against Okie State, Louisiana (not LSU) and Toledo, they allowed a 69-percent completion percentage (64-of-93) and a 358 yards passing per game average (1,075 total), including 308 to the Cowboys, 309 to Louisiana and 458 to Toledo.
Up front, the Hurricane are led by defensive ends Jesse Brubaker (6-3, 270, Sr.) and Jeremy Smith (6-5, 265, Sr.). Coogfans may remember Brubaker from the goal line stop in last year’s 38-31 win. Of course he was on offense being used as a tight end as he was stopped just inches short of the goal line on the final play of the game. That’s how athletic, powerful and fast the multi-year starter is. He’s going to be a load for Jones coming off the right edge even though he’s only started three games this season due to injury, (appearing in five) as he has 18 total tackles, 10 solo and 1 tackle-for-loss. Smith leads the unit with 3 sacks and is fourth in both total tackles and solo with 32 and 19 as Tulsa’s front is very active via stunts and twists. Trevis Gipson (6-4, 240, So.) and Frankie Davis Jr. (6-2, 240, Sr.) have offered little in the way of resistance as they have combined for 1.5 TFL and 11 total tackles (4 solo) in the three games they’ve subbed for Brubaker.
The Hurricane aren’t big in the middle either with defensive tackles Garrett Flanary (6-3, 270, Fr.) and Shemarr Robinson (6-4, 307, So.) combining for two TFL and 26 total tackles (9 solo). Kolton Shindelar (6-6, 280, Sr.) leads the down linemen with two TFL and a sack with redshirt freshman Tyarise Stevenson the big body in reserve as well at 6-3, 350 pounds adding 13 total tackles, 4 solo.
When your leading and third leading tacklers are from the secondary, you know your run defense isn’t up to par which is exactly what’s happening with Tulsa as McKinley Whitfield (6-4, 216, Jr.) and Manny Bunch (6-1, 197, So.) have 56 and 45 total tackles (35 and 27 solo) respectively. Even further bad news for Tulsa fans is Bunch left after the first play of their last game and was seen on crutches, meaning he won’t play on Saturday. Christian Williams (6-0, 176, So.), 20 total tackles, 12 solo and a pass breakup, will make his first start of the season replacing Bunch at strong safety. Cooper Edmiston (6-3, 239, So.) is second with 45 and 21 solo tackles, adding 1.5 for loss while also recovering 2 fumbles from his middle linebacker spot and Craig Suits (6-0, 223, Sr.) is the leader of the defense from his weakside linebacker spot, adding 30 total tackles (17 solo), 2 TFL, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble. Petera Wilson Jr. (6-2, 230, Sr.) and Diamon Cannon (6-2, 232, So.) play the star, or a hybrid linebacker/safety, adding 40 and 31 total tackles (20 and 12 solo) respectively. Wilson also has 2 TFL and a sack. As a team Tulsa has just 23 TFL (116th nationally) and 5 sacks (118th).
Tulsa is very young at corner with Reggie Robinson II (6-1, 190, So.), with 3 pass breakups and 21 total tackles (17 solo), and Akayleb Evans (6-2, 180), 11 tackles, 8 solo and a pass breakup, manning the outside spots. Kerwin Thomas (5-10, 180, Sr.) started the first four games but sat out the last few due to injury but is returning Saturday, adding 13 total tackles, 7 solo and a pass breakup.
With slot receiver Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.) and his 300 yards on 32 catches and 3 TD’s on the bench last week due to a concussion, the “Postman” spread the ball out to Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr.), D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.), Keith Corbin (6-3, 193, So.), John Leday (6-0, 200, Sr.), and Ellis Jefferson (6-4, 220, Sr.). Dunbar leads the unit with 355 yards on 30 catches, giving Postma a consistent target over the middle on crossers or via the back-shoulder fade, something Tulsa’s smaller corners won’t be able to contend with. King has especially been valuable at the slot as he has 18 receptions for 148 yards and 2 TD’s. Corbin continues to be the deep threat with his 20.7 yards-per-reception average (142 yards on 7 catches) but needs to get on the same page with Postma and needs to continue working on consistency as he’s dropped more than a few catchable passes so far this season. Leday (128 yards on 19 catches and a TD) spreads the defense out wide via the speed sweep and Jefferson is a big bodied target on the outside as he caught his first two passes last week, for 17 yards and a TD.
Offensively, the Hurricanes have their own quarterback controversy brewing after redshirt freshman Luke Skipper (6-2, 208) entered the game last week for an ineffective Chad President (6-2, 225, RSo.) and completed 10 of his 14 passes for 256 yards and a TD. The Forney, Texas native has something that the consensus 4-star rated prospect out of Temple, Texas doesn’t; mainly an arm to throw the deep ball.
After losing the program’s all-time leading passer in Dane Evans (11,600 yards), a 1,600 yard rusher in James Flanders and two 1,000 yard receivers in Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson, the Hurricane still average 33.8 points-per-game (43rd) and 448.2 yards of total offense (43rd); 269 on the ground (TENTH) and 179.2 through the air (102nd).
The Cougars have struggled against the run this season, allowing 154 yards-per-game rushing (69th). Coordinator Mark D’Onofrio’s defense is doing slightly better in the passing game, allowing 246.4 yards-per-game through the air (94th). While they allow 400.2 yards of total offense (78th), the “Third Ward Defense” ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense at just 16.2 points-per-game due to a stellar red zone defense in which they rank SECOND nationally with just 6 TD’s in 18 opportunities.
For Tulsa, their offense starts with running back D’Angelo Brewer (5-9, 190, Sr.), who ranks 14th nationally averaging 114 yards-per-game (684 yards on 143 carries and 6 TD’s). With over 3,000 career yards and 20 TD’s, Brewer can do it all whether it be outrunning the defense off the edge or between the tackles, despite his smaller stature. While averaging 23 carries-per-game, when he needs a rest there is no drop off with backup Shamari Brooks (5-9, 185) as the true freshman adds 393 yards on 64 carries for a 6.4 yards-per-carry average and matches Brewer’s 6 TD’s on the ground.
If President is the starter at quarterback he adds the read option package as he’s more of a runner, adding 365 yards on 48 carries (7.6 ypc) and 5 TD’s. He’s been inconsistent passing as he completes just 56.3-percent of his passes (71-for-126) for a 134.8 yard average (809 yards) with 2 TD’s and 2 interceptions. For the season Skipper has completed 12-of-17 passes for 266 yards (22.1 yards-per-completion) in limited time.
Tulsa’s offense can be dangerous if Skipper starts and has time in the pocket as Tulsa’s O-line has allowed just 8 sacks in their 6 games. That line, from left to right, of Evan Plagg (6-3, 295, Sr.), Tyler Bowling (6-6, 325, Jr.), Chandler Miller (6-3, 293, Jr.), Zac Uhles (6-3, 287, Sr.) and Willie Wright (6-3, 296, Jr.) have started over 100 career games entering Saturday’s game. Uhles is the only lineman who entered the season with zero career starts at his position (though he does have multiple career starts at both tackle spots and center over his first three year years on campus).
With two very different quarterbacks that Tulsa could trot out Saturday afternoon, it makes game planning for D’Onofrio and his staff very difficult, but their first point of emphasis is to always stop the run and that starts with Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.) at the nose. Despite playing on a sprained knee last week he still had 4 solo tackles, a pass breakup and 3 QB “hurries.” For the season Big Ed is fourth in solo stops with 21 (27 total), third with 3.5 TFL and first in hurries with 6 and forced fumbles with 2.
Facing constant double teams has allowed Nick Thurman (6-4, 293, Sr.) and Reggie Chevis (6-2, 290, Sr.) to receive mainly one-on-one blocks from their defensive end spots in which they’ve held up, allowing the linebackers penetration at the line of scrimmage as they’ve combined for 24 total tackles (13 solo), 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks and 4 hurries. Payton Turner (6-5, 240, Fr.), Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, So.) and Zach Vaughan (6-4, 265, RJr.) have done a nice job as the youngsters have a combined 3 hurries, 2 passes defended, 2 TFL, a sack and an interception and have given D’Onofrio a nice 6-man rotation up front.
The front-7 needs to play more consistent however as sometimes their aggressiveness has them over run their assigned gaps. Not fitting the right run fits is unsound football and allows huge rushing gains by the opponent as huge holes appear due to this un-fundamentally sound play. Inside linebackers Mathew Adams (6-1, 237, Jr.) and D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.) are going to have to be prepared to disengage second level blocks if they hope to keep Brewer, Brooks and President from running the ball down their throats. Adams leads the D with 48 total tackles, 28 solo and 4.5 TFL. Hines needs to continue racking up the tackles with his 37 total and 22 solo stops.
Outside rush backer Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) needs to be able to add a pass rush element, especially if Skipper starts as he’ll carve the secondary up with the size, speed and depth of Tulsa’s receivers. With only 9 sacks total by the defense, tied for 85th nationally with a host of teams, Egbule (21 tackles, 15 solo, 2.5 for loss) is important as he and hybrid outside linebacker/safety Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.) each have a team leading 2 sacks. Williams has been used on the delayed blitz very effectively as he has a team leading 7 TFL and is also the best tackler in space as all 25 of his 28 total tackles are solo, though he still leads with his shoulder too much for my liking, striking high instead of wrapping up down low.
It was last year against Tulsa that Egbule made a play that is so far lacking this year for the “Third Ward Defense” when he scooped up a fumble and returned it 24 yards for the game winning touchdown. That fumble was caused by free safety Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.) who leads the secondary with 3 interceptions, 30 total and 22 solo tackles. He and strong safety Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.), who is tied with Davis with 3 interceptions and leads with 7 passes defended, will have to patrol the middle of the field against a dangerous Tulsa wide receiver unit led by Justin Hobbs (6-4, 218, Jr.) on the outside and Keenen Johnson (6-1, 196, So.) from the slot, with 29 and 27 receptions for 449 and 321 yards respectively. Hobbs is a huge target in the red zone with 2 TD’s but is also dangerous via the deep passing game as he averages 15.5 yards-per-catch. Though underused by an anemic pass game thus far, Josh Stewart (6-3, 211, RFr.) on the outside and Nigel Carter (6-3, 205, Sr.) in the slot have the size and speed to be more than effective in the pass game as Stewart is third on the team with 103 yards while both he and Carter have 9 receptions, with Carter adding 78 yards. Tight end Chris Minter (6-2, 247, Jr.) is more of an inline blocker but one of his two catches (for 7 yards) has gone for a touchdown.
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.) have been up and down this year at cornerback, breaking on routes for pass breakups one play, then getting beat deep or missing a tackle on the next. Johnson had his best game of his young career with 11 solo stops last week against SMU taking turns with Winchester and Myres covering future NFL first round pick Courtland Sutton and did a decent job while allowing 11 catches for 160 yards. That’s going to happen when a wide receiver is targeted nearly 20 times such as Sutton and Trey Quinn (17 catches, 156 yards) were, each. For the season Johnson has 26 total tackles (20 solo), with 4 passes broken up and an interception. Winchester has added 22 total tackles, 14 solo, 2 pass breakups with a TFL, sack and a forced fumble. Myres has 3 pass breakups, a fumble recovery and 8 total tackles (6 solo). Of Williams 3 total tackles in limited play, 2 are solo while adding a TFL and a sack (that he had last week).
The Coogs continue to excel on special teams play, particular coverage units as they’ve allowed just 3 yards on 3 punt returns (TENTH nationally) behind the punting of Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) as he’s pinned opponent’s inside their own 20-yard line on 13 of his 26 punts while forcing 12 fair catches. Punting in a more fashioned “American” style over his Rugby style of last year has lowered his average only slightly (39.8 this year compared to 40.6 last year) but his hang time has allowed just the three returns. Tulsa has only 1 punt return this year, by Brewer, for 4 yards.
Kicker Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) has 9 touchbacks on 26 kickoffs as the kick coverage unit allows 20.9 yards on kickoffs (82nd nationally). The Hurricanes average just 16.8 yards on 24 kick returns (116th), with backup receiver Bishop Louie (5-9, 172, Sr.) returning 14 for a 16.6 average. He’s not listed on this week’s Tulsa’s 2-deep but Kenyon Stokes (6-0, 180, Fr.), who’s returned 8 for an 18.8 yard average, is.
Tulsa has allowed an 8.4 yard average (76th) on 9 punt returns behind the big leg of punter Thomas Bennett (6-3, 180, So.), who averages 41.1 yards-per-punt on 26 total punts, but has forced opponent’s inside their own 20 just 6 times while forcing another 6 fair catches and booming 4 for 50 + yards with a long of 60. The punt return game has been severely lacking for a few years now for the Coogs as they average just 2.5 yards (117th) on 6 total punt returns. Brandon McDowell (5-9, 183, Sr.) has just 15 yards on 5 returns and a fumble.
Place kicker Redford Jones (5-10, 175, Sr.) has 17 touchbacks on 37 kickoffs as the Hurricane allow 20 yards per kick return (60th) while the Coogs average 29 (SEVENTH) behind Leday’s 31.3 (13th).
While the Coogs have the advantage in the return and coverage games, if the game comes down to a field goal it would be Tulsa that the money should be on as Jones is a veteran kicker whom has connected on 38-of-44 career field goals, good for 86-percent, while Novikoff is a first year kicker whom has connected on 5-of-7 but doesn’t have the range that the Tulsa kicker does.
Keys to the game
Applewhite said it the best at his weekly media press conference this week (via uhcougars.com), “Let’s understand ball security, taking the ball away, scoring touchdowns in the red zone, making people kick field goals and taking the ball away in the red zone, is what has won the last two weeks.
The Coogs are just 50th in turnover margin at plus-1 (11 forced to 10 committed) while the Hurricane are 33rd at a plus-3 (9 forced to just 6 committed). While Tulsa allows plenty of yards rushing, they force fumbles as their 5 recovered are 22nd nationally so the Coogs ball carriers are going to have to be on-point this week in ball protection.
As mentioned earlier, the Coogs are ranked SECOND nationally, allowing just 6 TD’s in 18 red zone opportunities for opponents. Tulsa has crossed the goal line on 19-of-24 said trips, ranking 14th in red zone offense. Conversely, the Coogs O gets TD’s at a 65-percent clip (15-of-23), 47th, while Tulsa’s D is 86th at 63-percent (19-for-25).
Finally, both teams are below average in not hurting themselves via penalty. After a solid week last week (just 4 for 48 yards), the Coogs commit nearly 7 penalties per game for a 65 yard average, 95th, while Tulsa commit nearly 6 for 54 yards (64th).
Like last week, I think Houston controls the game early via the run game which allows Postma to mix in the intermediate pass game so the Coogs stay ahead of the sticks. Getting an early lead will force Tulsa to abandon the run game in the second half as the Coogs pull away late.