Game 7 preview: Memphis
By: Jimmy Schofield
Coming off their most disappointing loss of the season, your Houston Cougars don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves as they host the 25th ranked Memphis Tigers in a primetime matchup on Thursday night (Oct 19). Kick-off for this nationally televised ESPN game is set for 7pm CST.
After a dismal performance in a 45-17 loss at Tulsa last week, the Coogs jump from the pot to the frying pan in facing a hot Memphis (5-1, 2-1) squad led by second year head coach Mike Norvell (13-6). Luckily for Houston (4-2, 2-1) the American Athletic Conference West division is still up for grabs as every team in the division has one loss (Tulsa being the only team with two).
At just 36 years of age, Norvell is known as an offensive guru as he was hired to lead the Tigers after his offenses put up prolific numbers at Tulsa, Pitt and Arizona State (as offensive coordinator under Todd Graham). Norvell graduated from Central Arkansas in 2005 where he played wide receiver as a four-year starter and left as the program’s all-time leader in receptions (213) and ranked third in yards (2,611).
His spread offense can be described as being very diverse. The Tigers stress opposing defenses both horizontally (side line to side line via a quick passing screen game), and vertically via the deep passing game. They’ll also run between the tackles, disguising their intentions of being a physical team as they’ll use wide receiver motion and shifts from their tight ends to distract the opposing front-7. Norvell also likes to use his running backs in the passing game and emphasizes his tight ends as well as they’ll employ many two tight end sets (22 personnel). Their offense also stresses opponent’s via tempo, averaging 75 plays-per-game ranking them in the top-15 in the nation while they average nearly 6.5 yards-per-play, 25th nationally.
For the season the Tigers average 40.3 points-per-game (12th nationally), and 490.7 yards of total offense (14th); 310.5 passing (16th), 180.7 rushing (55th). They’ll be facing a struggling Houston defense, led by coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, that allows 21 points-per-game (39th) and 403 yards of total offense (84th); 226.7 passing (71st), 176.3 rushing (88th).
Every great offense needs a great signal caller and that’s exactly what Memphis has in quarterback Riley Ferguson (6-foot-4, 210 pounds, RSr.). As a former five-star prospect out of Mathews, North Carolina’s Butler HS (where he threw for over 8,000 yards in three seasons as the starter and led the Bulldogs to state titles in 2010 and 12), Ferguson initially signed with Tennessee where he redshirted in 2013. After a leg injury he took a year off from football in 2014, then transferred to Coffeyville Community College where he averaged nearly 330 yards passing during the 2015 season. He enrolled at Memphis in January of last year and took leadership over Norvell’s up-tempo spread offense quickly as he averages 279 yards passing-per-game while completing over 63-percent of his passes with 32 TD’s to 10 interceptions.
He's doing even better this season, averaging 302 yards-per-game (1,814 yards), ranking 12th nationally, and that’s with throwing for just 97 yards in their season opener. Subtract that game, a 37-29 home win against Louisiana-Monroe in a torrential downpour, and he’s averaging 343 yards passing per game. Ferguson’s TD: Int ratio is almost at 4-to-1, tossing 19 touchdowns (THIRD nationally) to 5 interceptions. His accuracy has decreased slightly as he’s completing “only” 59-percent of his passes (140-for-236), from 64-percent last year, but more of the offense is being put on his broad shoulders as he’s averaging 5 more attempts per game this season (39). In just a season and a half Ferguson is already in the top-5 in program history in completions, passing yards, touchdowns responsible for and touchdown passes.
Ferguson has a quick release and the arm to get the ball down field or between defenders in zone coverage, which can sometimes get him in trouble as he thinks his arm strength affords him the ability to thread the ball into tight windows. He also sometimes carelessly carries the ball in one hand which can lead to fumbles.
Norvell will have his Ferguson taking snaps out of shotgun, pistol or from under center and also trusts his QB to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Ferguson is also more mobile than he looks as he’ll roll out of bootlegs often and have run/pass options (RPO’s) as he adds 5 career rushing touchdowns. Norvell’s QB run game also includes zone read option keepers, read zone pitches, called draws and quarter back power plays (sweeps) with a running back leading the way as an extra blocker.
His number one target is wide receiver Anthony Miller (5-11, 190, RSr.) who will line up in both the outside and slot positions. The one-time walk-on has 45 receptions for 606 yards and 9 TD’s (SECOND nationally) which by far leads the team. His 7.5 receptions-per-game rank 10th nationally while his 101 yards-per-game has him at 15th.
Lining up at the other outside receiver spot will be Phil Mayhew (6-3, 210, Sr.), who has 16 receptions for 194 yards and a TD. Miller has 2,734 career yards and 28 career TD’s and has caught a pass in EVERY game he’s suited up for Memphis (that would be 31 straight). Mayhew adds 1,785 yards for his career and has caught a pass in 34 straight games. Both are excellent blockers, run great routes and have exceptional hands. Backing up Miller and Mayhew will be Damonte Coxie (6-3, 175, RFr.) John “Pop” Williams (5-9, 172, So.). The coaches rave about Coxie, who originally signed with LSU, and his potential as he has 8 receptions for 93 yards and a TD while Williams adds deep speed with 11 catches for 143 yards.
Houston’s cornerback unit of 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 played inconsistent so far, this season, breaking on routes for pass breakups one play, then getting beat deep or missing a tackle on the next. Johnson leads with 28 tackles (21 solo), 4 passes defended and an interception. Both Winchester (24 tackles, 15 solo) and Myres (9 tackles, 6 solo) also have 4 passes defended with Winchester adding an interception. Winchester had a dumb 15-yard penalty for talking trash with a Tulsa wide receiver, something he can’t do Thursday night.
Kedarian Jones (6-1, 190, RSo.) adds 3 receptions for 43 yards as the listed starter at the slot, but used as a blocker in the screen game as he loves to mix it up inside. Norvell will use a plethora of players in the slot to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties, led Joey Magnifico (6-4, 235, RSo.), an ultra-athletic tight end who’s third in receptions with 15, second in yards with 202, and a major threat in the red zone with 3 TD’s. Sean Dykes (6-2, 230, So.), is another hybrid tight end/receiver (from Manvel), who adds 86 yards on 7 receptions, including a 30-yard TD. Tony Pollard (5-11, 200, RSo.) lines up everywhere; in the slot, outside and in the backfield as the listed running back has blazing deep speed as his yards-per-reception, 18.8 (200 yards on 11 catches), leads the team.
As if all that weren’t enough, running backs Darrell Henderson (5-9, 200, So.), Patrick Taylor (6-3, 225, So.) and Doroland Dorceus (5-10, 215, RSr.) are all used efficiently in the running back screen game with 10, 7 and 4 receptions for 83, 87, and 36 yards respectively with Henderson and Taylor adding TD’s through the air.
Nickel back/outside linebacker Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.), safeties Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.) and Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.), along with inside linebackers Mathew Adams (6-1, 237, Jr.) and D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.) with outside rush backer Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) will ALL have to be on their “P’s-and-Q’s” in communicating on which player’s responsibility it is to pick up which Memphis player running through their assigned zones or they will allow huge chunks of yardage against a Memphis offense that can hit you from every conceivable angle.
Williams, first in tackles-for-loss with 7, and Egbule, first in sacks with 2.5, must be able to pressure Ferguson off the edge while not over pursuing their gaps, or the trio of Henderson, Taylor and Dorceus will gash them in the run game. The three haven’t been injury free for the same game thus far on the year as Henderson is the “home run” threat in the run game, averaging 8.1 yards-per-carry (542 yards on 67 carries) with 3 TD’s. Taylor averages a healthy 5.4 yards-per-carry (307 yards on 57 carries) and 3 TD’s while Dorceus is the “bruiser” of the bunch, with a 5.2 ypc average (134 yards on 26 carries) with 2 TD’s in 4 games. With Dorceus finally healthy, I see Norvell using him early and often as he has a strong lower body that’s powerful, allowing him to bounce off defenders. They'll also get Henderson and Taylor the ball via speed sweeps to use their speed off the edge. Adams (31 solo stops) and Hines (26 solo tackles) both have a team-high 57 total tackles and will have to fend off an athletic Memphis offensive line that loves to get to the second level via pulls.
Center Drew Kyser (6-5, 300, Jr.) has started 30 games over his three seasons while left tackle Trevon Tate (6-4, 290, RSo.) is also a three-year starter. The Houston Northshore High product has 25 career starts (including six this year). Dustin Woodard (6-2, 285, So.) is a second-year starter at left guard as is Gabe Kuhn (6-4, 295, RSr.) on the right side. Junior College transfers Roger Joseph (6-5, 317, Jr.) and Harneet Gill (6-7, 290, Jr.) share the right tackle spot as the only new starter(s) along the line with Lio Lafaele (6-4, 290, Jr.) seeing plenty of time in reserve along the interior for a line that’s allowed just 8 sacks (19th nationally) against a Houston defense that has just 10 sacks on defense (87th).
Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.) continues to show signs that his injured knee isn’t fully healthy as he’s often seen limping, but that’s barely slowed him down at the nose as is fourth in solo stops with 22 (36 total), second with 4.5 TFL, first in “QB hurries” with 6 and forced fumbles with 2.
Oliver’s 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 alright, allowing the linebackers penetration at the line of scrimmage as they’ve combined for 40 total tackles (19 solo), 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks and 4 hurries. Chevis had a career high 12 tackles last week. Payton Turner (6-5, 240, Fr.), Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, So.) and Zach Vaughan (6-4, 265, RJr.) have done a decent 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.
Defensively for the Tigers, they have a “Kat” position that’s a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker and a “Star” position that’s basically a nickel back, or hybrid linebacker/safety. So instead of labeling them a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5 we’ll just label them a “multiple” scheme under defensive coordinator Chris Ball. The second year DC emphasizes swarming to the ball and forcing turnovers as they put athletes on the field, putting them in position to make plays (ranking tied for third nationally with 17 forced turnovers). Being an ultra-aggressive unit, they’ll allow big plays as they allow 33.8 points-per-game (109th) and 477.5 yards of total offense (117th); 269.2 passing (113th), 208.3 yards rushing (107th). The Cougars offense, led by coordinator Brian Johnson, is struggling to find their identity as they average just 25.5 points-per-game (86th) and 428.2 yards of total offense (52nd); 266.3 passing (42nd), 161.8 rushing (69th).
Nothing that head coach Major Applewhite has said during this week’s media press conference has led me to believe that Kyle Postma (6-2, 200, Sr.) won’t be the starter. For the season he’s completing 65.6-percent of his passes (80-for-122) while throwing for 805 yards (averaging 220 yards-per-game in his three starts). The redshirt senior from Katy has just 4 TD’s to 5 interceptions.
Forcing balls down field will be killer against a Tigers defense that’s turned over opponent’s 17 times this season, 8 interceptions and 9 fumbles recovered (second nationally). It all starts up front with O’Bryan Goodson (6-1, 315, Fr.), Christian Johnson (6-5, 270, RSr.) and Jonathan Wilson (6-3, 280, So.) along the defensive line. While Memphis is in the middle of the pack in the nation with 40 tackles-for-loss (54th) and their 8 sacks rank them 112th, they do get to the opposing quarterback, moving him off his mark with lots of movement up front via various games by twists and stunts. Johnson and Wilson combine for 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks while Goodson is a rock in the middle with 4 TFL and a sack. Goodson is injured and may not play but Memphis is deep as they rotate in John Tate (6-4, 290, RFr.) in the middle, with Joseph Dorceus (6-0, 275, RFr.) and Emmanuel Cooper (6-1, 275, Jr.) in at end, with a combined 4 TFL. With the injuries and loss of one of their defensive captains in Ernest Suttles, who was kicked off the team last Saturday as he was arrested on a rape charge, the depth has been needed.
While the down lineman may not show up on the stat sheet, they’ve done a nice job in occupying offensive linemen so the back-7 can make plays, led by Mike and Will linebackers Curtis Akins (6-2, 230, RJr.) and Genard Avery (6-1, 255, Sr.). Akins is a beast against the inside run as he’s third on the team with 34 total tackles, third with 27 solo, 1.5 for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups when dropping back in zone coverage. He’s only played in 4 games due to injury and is listed as the backup to Tim Hart (6-1, 235, RFr.) who has 22 total tackles, 2 forced fumbles and an interception that he returned 60-yards for a TD against UCLA. Avery is the most versatile defender however as he’ll rush the QB via blitzing the A-gaps or coming off the edge as he leads the D with 6.5 TFL, is second with 1.5 TFL and is third with 36 total tackles (20 solo). The KAT spot is split between Bryce Huff (6-3, 245, So.) and Shareef White (6-1, 230, Sr.) as they combine for 46 total tackles (34 solo) and 5 TFL.
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.) will have to communicate effectively against blitzes that could come from any inconceivable angle. Their play has been inconsistent this season so hopefully they’ll play their best game of the season after playing one of their worst last week.
Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.), Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) and Mulbah Car (6-0, 210, So.) have combined to rush for 785 yards (431, 227 and 127 respectively) with Birden averaging 5.8 yards-per-carry to Catalon’s 4.8. Car hasn’t been used as much which perplexes me as much as why Postma hasn’t carried more on the zone read option. Car averages 6 ypc (though he’s carried the ball just 21 times through 6 games) while Postma would be averaging near 5 if not for sack yards lost last week. The running backs need to hit the holes hard and fast against a Memphis defensive front that can be gashed as their over-aggressiveness can lead them not hitting their run fits properly, allowing huge chunks of yards.
Houston’s running backs will have to navigate a backfield with quick and aggressive back-7 led by defensive backs Austin Hall (6-2, 205, RSo.) at the Star spot and Jonathan Cook (6-0, 198 Sr.) at free safety as the two defensive backs leads the defense with 44 and 38 total tackles (35 and 29 solo) respectively. Hall, a former walk-on, is a sideline-to-sideline player (3 interceptions) who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the box as his 4.5 TFL attests. Both have 3 passes broken up as well. Cook is the only returning starter from last season, explaining some of their struggles on defense (along with all their injuries).
Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.) must overcome his lingering concussion issues and get back to his old self if the passing game hopes to get amped up as he’s a superb route runner who has a knack for finding space in the middle of the opposing defense’s zone coverage to give his QB a nice target, especially on third down. For the season the former walk-on has 344 yards on 37 receptions (9.4 yards-per-catch) and 3 TD’s. In his absence, D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.) has picked up the slack, catching 22 passes for 213 yards (9.7 ypc) and 2 TD’s while adding 27 yards on 11 carries and a TD while also passing for a 22-yard TD from the slot.
Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr) has been the most consistent receiver catching 40 passes for 462 yards (11.6 ypc) but hasn’t caught a TD yet this season from his outside spot. Keith Corbin (6-3, 193, So.) has all the ability in the world, especially as a deep threat in that he can blow the top off of an opposing defense as his 19 yards-per-catch average demonstrates (152 yards on 8 catches) but is too inconsistent, dropping at least one pass per game, or so it seems. John Leday (6-0, 200, Sr.) may be the fastest straight-line runner on the team but has to learn to run better routes or he won’t receive anything other than the occasional “flip pass” off a jet sweep that acts as an extended hand off (6.3 ypc) on his 20 catches for 126 yards and a TD. Ellis Jefferson (6-4, 220, Sr.) just can’t seem to catch a break as he injured a knee after a 15 yard reception last week that was all YAC yardage.
The Tigers are really young at corner back with true freshman T.J. Carter (5-11, 180) their best cover corner with his 3 interceptions and 30 total tackles (21 solo). Junior college transfer Tito Windham (5-9, 180, Jr.) is a solid tackler on the other side with 10 of his 13 tackles being solo while adding 3 pass breakups. Another JC transfer, and Cedar Hill native, Christian Slaughter (5-10, 190, RSr.) is probably the secondary’s most sure tackler with all 15 of his stops being solo, 2 being for loss, from his nickel back spot. Tyrez Lindsay (6-2, 205, RFr.) ties the defense together from his strong safety spot, adding 17 tackles (9 solo) as the single high safety up top.
When Norvell was hired he placed a heavy emphasis on special teams play, and he hasn’t been disappointed over his season plus on Beale Street with special teams’ coordinator Joe Lorig, who’s also the outside linebackers coach where he learned under Todd Orlando at Utah State in 2014. Not only will they call trick plays, having faked a punt and field goal already this season, each unit can be considered a strength, especially the kick return unit as Tony Pollard has returned 2 kicks for TD’s this year and has 4 the past years. For the season he’s averaging 39.3 yards-per-kick ranking him SECOND nationally while the teams’ 28.6 yard return average ranks EIGHTH. Houston kicker Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) has 11 touchbacks on 30 kickoffs as the kick coverage unit allows 20.8 yards on kickoffs (80th nationally).
Houston will have to win the field position battle when it comes to the punt returns units as Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) has pinned opponent’s inside their own 20-yard line on half of his punts (15 of 30) while also forcing 13 fair catches. Punting in a more fashioned “American” style over his Rugby style of last year has lowered his average only slightly (39.2 this year compared to 40.6 last year) but his hang time has allowed just the three returns, for three yards (eighth nationally). Memphis has just 13 punt returns this year, by Williams, for 65 yards. That 5 yards per return average ranks the Tigers 87th nationally, slightly better than Houston’s 3.1 (116th) behind Brandon McDowell (5-9, 183, Sr.) has just 25 yards on 7 returns and a fumble.
The Coogs do average 26.9 on kick returns themselves (SIXTH) behind Leday’s 28 yards per (11th). The Tigers use two kickers and punters, each for specific reasons. Spencer Smith (6-1, 175, RSr.), who lead the American in punting average last season, is their “long” punter as he’s averaging 43.1 yards-per-punt with 4 of them over 50 yards. Nick Jacobs (6-1, 190, Sr.) is their “short” punter as 7 of his 13 punts (41.3 average) have pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line. They allow just 5.25 yards-per-punt-return (46th) and 18.3 per kick (34th). Place kicker Riley Patterson (6-0, 180) is a true freshman who has 2 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs and has connected on 4-of-5 as the “long” kicker with a long of 42 while Smith is the “short” kicker, connecting on all 3 of his with a long of 35. Novikoff has connected on 6-of-8 with a long of 45 which could be key as these two rivals always play a close affair.
Keys to the game
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, penalties and red zone efficiency.
“Gentlemen, it is better to have died a young boy than to fumble this football,” John Heisman once famously said. As stated earlier, the Tigers are ranked 11th in turnover margin at plus-7 (17 forced to 10 lost). In their lone loss, 40-13 at UCF in the second game, Memphis turned the ball over FIVE times though, leading to 14 Knights points. The Coogs are at a minus-1 (76th) with 13 lost to 12 gained. With 9 interceptions for the “Jack Boys” (12th), and against a quarterback that loves to take chances, Thursday night seems like the perfect time for an “HTownTakeover Turnover” party.
The Coogs are 83rd in penalty yardage per game with 60 while the Tigers are at 120th with 76 yards given to the opposition. Neither team can afford to give away yards in a matchup that’s always so close.
The Coogs score touchdowns in the red zone at a 64-percent rate (16 scores in 25 attempts), ranking them 50th nationally. Conversely, the allow opponents to cross the goal line 41-percent of the time (9-for-22) to rank NINTH. The Tigers red zone efficiency has them scoring touchdowns 68-percent of the time (19-for-28), good for 38th, while they allow opponent to score at a 57-percent rate (22-of-28), 62nd. Houston is going to have to keep pace with Memphis’s high-powered attack, so not settling on field goals will be key, but then again, when isn’t it?
Can the Coogs win their seventh straight against an AP top25 ranked foe? Memphis comes to down the 25th best team in the nation Thursday night. Though Houston always plays with a chip on their shoulder when backed into a corner, I just don’t see them having enough fire power to stay with the Tigers.