Hawaii Bowl Post Game Analysis
By: Jimmy Schofield
Your Houston Cougars ended the 2017 season with the kind of uninspired, inconsistent effort that has plagued the season in a 33-27 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs in the Hawaii Bowl Sunday night. With the loss the Coogs finish at 7-5 in Major Applewhite’s first year as head coach.
Coogfans.com breaks down all three phases of the game.
Unfortunately, the offense played about as expected against a tough Fresno State defense that was ranked ninth nationally in scoring and 16th in total defense entering the game. The offensive line couldn’t get a push up front and the play calling left a lot to be desired as they totaled just 341 yards of total offense, just 72 of which were rushing. After completing 70-percent of his passes over the past four games as starting quarter back, D’Eriq King struggled to find a rhythm as he played like a true sophomore starting in just his fourth game. The Manvel native completed just 23-of-43 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and an interception that was returned for a 45-yard touchdown off a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage that ultimately ended up determining the game. The month layoff was evident for King, who was just off on his passes being either too high or too low, while a few were simply dropped.
Wide receivers Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner deserved a better way to go out as they both had their usual fantastic games, especially Dunbar who had a career night with 10 receptions for 197 yards with many of them being clutch third down catches via the quick slant when he was isolated in man coverage in 2 or 3X1 sets. Bonner added 7 receptions for 39 yards and a late TD grab. They’ll sorely be missed next year as none of the other wide receivers stepped up. Courtney Lark was the only other wide receiver with a catch as he had 4 for just 30 yards as King was off in the deep passing game, completing just 2-of-6 for 88 yards. King entered the game completing 16-of-25 deep balls (passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air) for 492 yards (30 yards-per-completion). Keith Corbin didn’t have a catch, dropping two passes, and both he and Lark whiffed on a few blocks in the wide receiver screen game, something the two will need to be coached up on as they’ll be expected to be leaders of the unit next season.
The offensive line of Josh Jones, Marcus Oliver, Will Noble, Braylon Jones and Na’Ty Rogers couldn’t open any holes up front as running backs Duke Catalon and Mulbah Car combined to rush for just 32 yards on 18 carries with neither carrying for more than 5 yards on any of their rushes. King added a team high 38 yards on 9 carries but wasn’t used enough in the QB run game for my liking. He had carried the rock 49 times for 295 yards (for a 6 yards-per-carry average) and 7 TD’s entering the game, but had only one power lead play called (with Car acting as lead blocker) which resulted in a 15-yard gain. He had 34 yards on 4 called draws, lost a yard on two roll outs and was sacked twice losing 10 yards.
Mark D’Onofrio’s defense allowed 473 total yards to a Fresno State team that had averaged just 387 yards (86th nationally) entering the game. The game was marked by the same soft zone coverage that has been played all season. The cornerback trio of Isaiah Johnson (5 solo tackles), Jeremy Winchester (4 solo stops) and Alexander Myres (9 tackles, 7 solo) have played inconsistent all year, making nice plays in coverage followed by spotty ones. Even when they play man coverage they get burned as their fundamentals are lacking. Fresno State QB Marcus McMaryion looked like Tom Brady Sunday night, throwing for a career high 342 yards on 33-of-48 passing.
Not only is their technique bad (getting turned around on plays and missing tackles), but the communication between members of the linebacker core and secondary has been severely lacking all season as well. I can’t count how many times tight ends or running backs have roamed free due to bad underneath coverage, leading to huge gainers because they got lost by the back-7 when being passed off from one zone to the next. Strong safety Terrell Williams had 9 tackles and a fumble recovery, but it seemed that he and free safety Garrett Davis were out of place all evening. Davis registered zero tackles as his shoulder injury he’s been dealing with the past few months still hasn’t healed all the way. Nickel back Khalil Williams added just 4 total tackles in one of his quieter games as he couldn’t get to the quarterback, even on the delayed blitz.
Bulldogs tight end Jared Rice had 6 receptions for 84 yards, often being released off the line by a linebacker but failing to be picked up by a member of the secondary. Fresno State star wide receiver KeeSean Johnson had 95 yards on 8 catches as he took advantage of all three corners lining up all over the field. Jamire Jordan added 80 yards on 6 grabs mainly as an outside receiver as it was simple “pitch-and-catch” on many of his receptions via the corners playing way off.
Linebacker Mathew Adams had a nice final game in a Cougars uniform as he was everywhere on the field, registering 12 tackles (9 solo), 2 for loss, and a sack. Fellow inside linebacker D’Juan Hines added a forced fumble and interception. Down linemen Ed Oliver and Jerard Carter played their typical outstanding games as Big Ed had 2 tackles-for-loss with Carter adding 4 solo stops including one for loss himself. Oliver also added a rushing TD in the first quarter. Nick Thurman also played his final game as he didn’t register much on the stat sheet (3 tackles), but played well in occupying blockers up front. Payton Turner had a pass batted down in reserve.
With the offense staying on the field for just 26-minutes, the defense simply wore down as the game progressed as Fresno State rushed for 114 of their 131 yards in the second half. The “Third Ward Defense” was also unable to pressure McMaryion but that wasn’t surprising considering Fresno State’s offensive line allowed just nine sacks all season. A designated pass rusher needs to be found as Emeke Egbule (just two sacks with the team having only 23 total) hasn’t been the answer in taking over Tyus Bowser. In trying to make up for an ineffective pass rush, D’Onofrio has had to play games up front via stunts and twists which have rarely worked, as has his overload delayed blitz game. As they say, sometimes it’s not about the X’s & the O’s, but the Jimmy’s & the Joe’s.
While coordinator James Casey couldn’t have been pleased with the lack of communication (beginning to sense a theme here?) between kick returners John Leday and Mark McLemore that led to a fumble inside their own 10-yard line during the third quarter, it was more than made up for by Winchester blocking a field goal attempt that was returned 94 yards by Myres for a game tying touchdown late in the third quarter.
Dane Roy averaged 43.4 yards on 5 punts, pinning the Bulldogs inside their 20 two times as Fresno State didn’t have any punt return yards. Caden Novikoff missed a 45-yard field goal after connecting on 8 consecutive attempts entering the game, but connected on his other two (both from 31 yards), finishing the season 12-of-15.
Overall, the team hurt itself too much to win, just as it has all season. Penalties (a face mask on Myres and a pass interference on Johnson) led to extending two FSU drives they would ultimately score 10 points off of, turnovers (two including a pick-6 that ultimately ended up determining the final outcome), a lack of fundamentals and bad coaching/play calling all reared its ugly head leading to yet another loss.
With offensive coordinator Brian Johnson leaving for Florida a few weeks ago, Applewhite called the plays but unfortunately nothing changed. When he was hired as offensive coordinator three seasons ago he was quoted as saying, “We’re going to run the football. That’s something that’s stood the test of time. We’ve seen many teams throw it all the time offensively and very seldom do they get above 7-5, 8-4 and compete for championships and that’s why we’re here.”
Ironically his first year ended at exactly 7-5 because of a stubbornness to stick with a run game that wasn’t always working. Just as D’Onofrio’s defense continued getting burned by opposing defenses that played simple “pitch-and-catch” due to his soft zone coverages.
With the early signing period just completed in recruiting, Applewhite and his staff still have a lot of work to do in reshaping the team into the mold he ultimately wants to form this team into. It starts with the traditional signing day in February, winter conditioning, and spring ball which leads into summer workouts as the preface for the 2018 season. Stay logged into Coogfans.com for all the latest goings-on’s during which is sure to be an interesting off-season.