2017 Hawaii Bowl Preview
By: Jimmy Schofield
At 7-4 and a second-place finish in the American Athletic Conference’s Western division at 5-3, under first year head coach Major Applewhite, your Houston Cougars have been rewarded with a trip to the 16th annual Hawaii Bowl to conclude the 2017 season. Game time for this Christmas eve matchup against Fresno State is set for 7:30pm (CST) and will be televised via ESPN.
The Bulldogs finished in first place in the Mountain West Conference’s Western division at 7-1 and are 9-4 overall after a 17-14 loss at Boise State in their conference championship game on December 2. After finishing 1-11 during the 2016 season, Jeff Tedford was hired and engineered the best turnaround of any FBS team this season.
Tedford, 91-61 in 12 total seasons (11 at Cal), is known for his offensive exploits as a head coach, including his tutelage of Aaron Rogers. It’s no wonder then what he’s done with first year starter at quarterback in Marcus McMaryion, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound graduate transfer from Oregon State. After not having arrived on campus until August 13 after having been passed over for the starting job in Corvallis after seven starts over the previous two seasons, McMaryion was eased into the starting lineup, not taking the reins full time until their fourth game of the season.
After an easy 66-0 blanking of Incarnate Word to open the season, the Bulldogs lost at sixth ranked Washington and top ranked Alabama by a combined 63 points in which McMaryion split time with Mesquite native Chason Virgil (6-1, 192, RSo.). McMaryion then started the fourth game in a 41-21 win versus Nevada and the team hasn’t looked back, winning 8 of their final 10 games by an average of 16 points.
For the season the Bulldogs average 26.7 points-per-game (78th nationally) and 386.8 yards of total offense (84th); 156.8 rushing (77th), 230 passing (66th) under first year coordinator Kalen Deboer. Tedford, who calls the plays, will be matching wits against defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio as his “Third Ward Defense” allows just 23 points-per-game (39th) and 417.5 yards of total offense (84th); 149.5 rushing (47th), 268.1 passing (118th).
While much has been made of what Tedford would do offensively for the Bulldogs upon his hiring, its been the defense that has paved the way to their success this season. Under first year coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, they allow just 17.2 points-per-game this season (NINTH) and 319 yards of total offense (16th); 116.6 rushing (15th), 202.4 passing (37th). This after allowing 30.9 PPG last year and 415 yards of total offense, 247 rushing, 168 passing.
Offensively, the Coogs average 28.4 points-per-game (67th) and 437.9 yards of total offense (35th); 175.5 rushing (53rd), 262.5 passing (39th). It will be interesting to see how the offense is called however with Applewhite calling the plays after coordinator Brian Johnson left to be the quarterback’s coach at Florida earlier in the month.
When Fresno State has the ball
While it was difficult for Tedford to bench Virgil, who was only the third Bulldog to pass for over 2,000 yards as a freshman last season, it was easy to see why McMaryion became the man; mainly the combination of having a strong arm to pass deep along with the mobility to keep defenses honest via his legs. Add his football IQ (remember he’s a graduate transfer as a fourth-year junior meaning he still has one year left of eligibility), and you have 8 wins in 10 games as he’s completed 61-percent of his passes (185-for-303) for 2,384 yards (183 per game) and 14 touchdowns passing to just 4 interceptions.
In Tedford’s spread offense, defenses will be stressed from sideline-to-sideline via the quick screen game while also focusing on the intermediate and deep parts of the field via play-action due to a strong emphasis on the power run game. McMaryion will take snaps from either under center, so they can call the bootleg for the play action game, or use him in zone stretch runs, or out of the shot gun on called draws or the zone read option. They’ll often spread the field with 4 or 5 wide receivers to disguise their intentions of running McMaryion, who’s the fourth leading rusher with 252 yards on 48 carries (5.2 yards-per-carry average) with 2 TD’s.
As the Bulldogs average 36 carries-per-game, they use four running backs to lessen the load physically on them all. Jordan Mims (5-11, 190) is a true freshman who has the most carries, 148 (for 609 yards and 6 TD’s), and has the shiftiness and quick cut ability to make opposing defenders look silly. Josh Hokit is the physical, power back at 6-2, 220 pounds, with 117 carries for 519 yards (4.4 per carry) and a team-leading 7 TD’s on the ground. Ronnie Rivers is another true freshman and at 5-8, 175 pounds could be classified as a scat-back with 95 carries for 473 yards (5 per carry) and 5 TD’s. Dejonte O’Neal (5-7, 170, Jr.) is used mainly on the speed sweep from the slot as he adds 109 yards on 24 carries (4.5 average). All four are used effectively in the passing game as they have nice hands coming out of the backfield as well with Rivers catching 18 passes for 121 yards and a score, while Hokit has 12 receptions for 98 yards. Both Mims and O’Neal have 11 grabs each for 119 and 98 yards respectively.
Fresno State will take deep shots in the passing game early as Tedford is an aggressive play caller. Their main wide receiver is junior KeeSean Johnson (pictured), who lines up all over the field to take advantage of whom Tedford deems the weakest defensive back. At 6-2, 205 pounds, Johnson (not related to former USC and NFL great KeyShawn Johnson) is obviously a big target who can high-point jump balls but has the speed for deep go-routes as he leads with 69 receptions for 918 yards (13.3 yards-per-catch) with 8 TD’s. His 35 consecutive games with a reception is also a school record and shows how consistent he’s been in his three years in Fresno.
Da’Mari Scott (6-1, 210, RSr.) is the veteran of the wide receiver group and another big target but with enough speed to also use on the speed sweet (91 yards on 13 carries) as he’s second in receptions with 53 for 543 yards and a TD. From there the drop-off in receptions is huge as Jamire Jordan (5-11, 171, Jr.) and Jared Rice (6-5, 228, So.) play decidedly different roles from the slot. Jordan leads the unit in yards-per-reception with 22.9 (482 yards on 21 receptions and 3 TD’s) as the deep threat while Rice is used in a variety of roles; as an H-back/fullback in the backfield, lined up inline as a second tight end, or in the slot in taking advantage of slower linebackers. For the season Rice adds 16 catches for 304 yards (19 per grab) and 2 TD’s. Kyle Riddering (6-6, 240, Jr.) and David Tangipa (6-5, 240) are two classic inline blocking tight ends, though Riddering is a viable receiving threat (6 receptions for 44 yards and a score) while Tangipa’s lone catch, for 3 yards, was also a TD.
Speaking of blocking, the Bulldogs line of Christian Cronk (6-5, 305, Jr.), Netane Muti (6-3, 310, RFr.), Aaron Mitchell (6-2, 305, Sr.), Micah St. Andrew (6-3, 343, RJr.) and David Patterson (6-5, 302, RSr.) allowed something they hadn’t allowed in some time in their last game at Boise State; their quarterback being sacked. After allowing two sacks to the Broncos, they’ve now allowed just NINE total sacks, good for THIRD nationally. While Muti is a first-year starter at left guard who is athletic enough to be used on pulls, Cronk has started 25 consecutive games over the past two seasons. Mitchell has started the past 21 at center over the past two seasons after starting the first four games last year at left guard. Andrew meanwhile has started 28 consecutive games at right guard going back to the end of the 2015 season while Patterson has started the past 25 games at right tackle over the past 2 seasons. In total the Bulldogs offensive line has a combined 116 starts.
Defending Fresno State
It’s going to take a great effort by Houston’s front-7 against an offensive line that’s mean, nasty and physical, but that’s exactly the kind of challenge that nose guard Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.) loves. The newly crowned Outland Trophy winner, presented annually to the nation’s best interior lineman by the Football Writers of America (FWAA), Big Ed has 69 total tackles this season, 44 solo including 14.5 TFL (fourth among tackles) and 5.5 sacks after his amazing game against Navy to close the regular season with 14, 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks. Oliver needs to blow up the interior of Fresno State’s offensive line as he averages 6.3 tackles-per-game is also fourth nationally among fellow defensive linemen.
Oliver’s job has become easier with the addition of Jerard Carter (6-2, 285, Jr.), who has 4.5 TFL in just 4 games (2 starts). Fellow defensive end Nick Thurman (6-4, 293, Sr.) also has 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks in a solid 3-man front in D’Onofrio’s 3-4 scheme as both are easily able to shed one-on-one blocks due to the constant double and triple teams on Oliver.
Linebackers Mathew Adams (6-1, 237, Jr.), D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.), Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) and Leroy Godfrey (6-2, 235, RSo.) must have good eye discipline as to not get beat in the intermediate zones via play-action, but aggressive enough to penetrate the line of scrimmage and rally to the ball. Adams should have had enough time for his ankle issues to heal as he has 76 total and 45 solo tackles including 6.5 for loss. In his final season Hines has stepped his play up being named to the AAC all-first defensive team as he’s first on the team in tackles with 104, 55 solo and 6.5 TFL. Egbule will cover Fresno’s dynamic running backs/slot receivers out of the backfield and must not get beat on wheel routes as he has 54 total tackles, 5.5 TFL and 2 sacks from the “rush backer” spot while Godfrey has come on this season with 8.5 TFL, which is second on the defense, and 28 total tackles in just 5 starts (11 games total).
Houston’s cornerback trio of Isaiah Johnson (6-3, 195, Jr.), Jeremy Winchester (5-11, 203, Jr.) and Alexander Myres (5-10, 192, Jr.) will take turns rotating on Johnson, Fresno’s best receiver, but can’t underestimate the rest of their wideouts, especially on underneath routes in D’Onofrio’s soft zone. Johnson leads with 9 pass breakups, including 2 interceptions but has played inconsistently all season, making a great play one play then getting burned the next. Myres has 7 breakups with an interception and Winchester adding 5 and 1 as well.
Safeties Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.) and Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.) must also play disciplined and not get beat with all the various shifts and motions the Bulldogs use or they will get beat deep off play action. Williams leads the team with 10 pass breakups including 4 interceptions while Davis has 7 breakups and 4 interceptions as well from his deep free safety spot. Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.) is a wildcard as he’s been ineffective lately due to ankle issues and is very important as he’s best used in D’Onofrio’s various pressure packages, especially via the delayed blitz from his nickel back spot. For the season Williams is second in TFL with 8 while adding 6 pass breakups in coverage.
Steinauer has done a remarkable job in one year in changing the scheme from a two-gap 3-4 to a one-gap, 4-3 that emphasizes aggressiveness, physicality and speed to the ball as they rank 25th in sacks with 32 and 37th in tackles-for-loss with 81. Steinauer had spent the past 20 years in the Canadian Football league, 7 as a coach after 13 as an all-pro defensive back for Ottawa and Hamilton. In his playing days he accumulated the second most interception yards (1,178) in CFL history. Tedford himself spent some time in the CFL as head coach of the B.C. Lions in 2015 and heard of Steinauer as he quarterbacked for Hamilton in the early 80’s.
Defensively for the Bulldogs, it all starts up front for behind massive run stuffing tackles Malik Forrester (6-1, 295, Sr.) and Kevin Atkins (6-1, 297, RFr.). Forrester is a play disruptor as he has great hands to shed blocks quickly to force his way into opposing backfields with 8 TFL and 5 sacks. Robert Stanley (6-3, 245, Sr.) and Tobenna Okeke (6-3, 245, Sr.) are two veteran defensive ends with Stanley leading the defense with 10.5 TFL with Okeke adding 5 sacks. Jasad Haynes (6-0, 275, So.) and Nathan Madsen (6-4, 298, Sr.) give relief up front at the tackle spots with a combined 6.5 TFL and 2 sacks, while Stephen Van Hook (6-2, 245, Sr.) and Kwami Jones (6-2, 240, So.) provide depth at end with a combined 5.5 TFL and 3 sacks.
Jeffrey Allison (6-0, 250, So.) is an old-school classic middle linebacker who plays sideline-to-sideline as he’s 11th nationally with 71 solo tackles (113 total), including 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 forced and recovered fumbles. The Miami, Florida native is also good in coverage when dropping back in robber coverage as he adds 3 pass breakups. George Helmuth (6-1, 220, Jr.) is nicknamed “The Hammer” for his ferocious hits from either the strong or weak outside linebacker spot. The former walk-on is the second leading tackler with 83 (52 solo) while adding 8 TFL, 4 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries. James Bailey (6-1, 225, Jr.) adds 68 total tackles, 37 solo and 3.5 for loss from the other outside spot as the nickel back. Justin Green (6-4, 210, Sr.) and Justin Rice (6-2, 210, So.) play a hybrid linebacker/safety playing over the slot, adding a combined 17 tackles and 3.5 TFL.
The secondary is led by Juju Hughes (5-10, 180, So.) and Mike Bell (6-3, 205, So.) from the strong and free safety spots. Hughes makes plays all over the field with 69 total tackles (52 solo), 6 TFL and 7 pass breakups. Bell is an “in the box” safety as he adds 70 tackles (45 solo), 3 TFL, 2 forced and one recovered fumble. Anthoula “Tank” Kelly (5-10, 185, Jr.) and Jaron Bryant (6-1, 183, So.) are the cornerbacks with each having 6 pass breakups. Bryant is a Ft. Worth native and leads the team with 3 interceptions while Kelly adds an interception and 3 TFL as a blitzer off the slot.
When Houston has the ball
The Cougars offense changed for the better when D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.) took over as the starting quarterback. In his three starts, plus the USF game in which he played all but the first two series, the Manvel product is completing 70-percent of his passes (66-for-94) while averaging 243 yards (969 yards) with 5 TD’s and an interception. He’s also carried the rock 49 times for 295 yards (6 ypc) for an additional 7 TD’s and 2 fumbles. While he’s still learning the position in terms of reading the various types of coverage, one thing is apparent; he has a cannon for an arm. By my unofficial count, King has completed 16-of-25 deep balls (passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air) for 492 yards (30 yards-per-completion) and 4 TD’s.
The key will be can his offensive line give him enough time to throw deep? Left tackle Josh Jones (6-5, 303, RSo.) returned from a knee injury against Navy that had him miss two of the past three games. Na’Ty Rogers (6’5, 302, Sr.) lines up at right tackle and must play physically sound against an aggressive front-7 that will blitz from different angles. Marcus Oliver (6-3, 300, Sr.) and Braylon Jones (6-3, 311, So.) need to play more physically on the interior from their respective guard spots as does center Will Noble (6-4, 297, Jr.). 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 the Bulldogs. As good as Fresno State’s O-line has been, Houston’s has also been effective allowing just 15 sacks this season (tied for 13th with 6 other teams).
The Coogs must at least try to establish the run early, even against a defense allowing just 116.6 yards-per-game. With running back Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.) dinged up after leaving the Tulane game with a nasty looking ankle injury after only two carries and Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) possibly returning after missing the past few games due to a dislocated elbow, the onus of running on the interior will be on Mulbah Car (6-0, 210, So.) yet again. For the season Catalon leads with 621 yards on 138 carries and 8 TD’s. Car is the between-the-tackles runner with a 5.1 ypc average (372 yards on 73 carries and 3 TD’s) while Birden adds 333 yards on 60 totes while crossing the goal line 4 times himself.
This will be wide receivers Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.), Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr) and John Leday’s (6-0, 200, Sr.) final game in a Houston uniform. Bonner and Dunbar have been 1 and 1-A in terms of receptions and yards along with leadership the past two seasons, and will surely be missed. Bonner leads in receptions with 73, to Dunbar’s 66, while Dunbar barely leads in yards, 873 to 850. Bonner has one more TD at 4 to 3. Leday has finally seen playing time this season, adding 161 yards on 25 catches with many coming on “flip passes” via the jet sweep that serves as a horizontal run play.
Courtney Lark (6-2, 195, So.) and Keith Corbin (6-3, 193, So.) are youngsters that are the future and must step up against a sound Fresno State secondary that plays a combo of man and cover-2 zone coverages on the back end. Corbin has 10 receptions to Lark’s 9, but Lark has 205 yards as the deep threat (22.8 ypc) to Corbin’s 164 (16.4 ypc). Lark also has 2 TD’s to 0 for Corbin, who also must improve on his blocking in the run game against physical Bulldogs corners.
Fresno State has had solid special teams play all season under coordinator and former UH coach, Jamie Christian. They averaged 21.7 yards-per-kickoff (49th) and 6.8 on punts (74th) with Houston allowing 21.3 yards on kickoffs (72nd) and 5.9 on punts (42nd). Fresno State’s Da’Mari Scott averages 24 yards on 9 returns with a long of 63. Dejonte O’Neal averages 20 yards on 18 returns with a high of 29 and Jamire Jordan averages 35 yards on just 5 returns, with a high of 71.
The Coogs average 24.1 yards on kick returns (21st) and 4.4 on punt returns (116th) while Fresno State allows 18.8 yards-per-kick return (25th) and 14.4 on 13 punt returns (125th). John Leday averages 25 yards on 21 kick returns with a high of 81 while Brandon McDowell (5-9, 183, G-Sr.) averages 29 yards on just 4 returns with a high of 50 yards. McDowell also averages 4.4 yards on 14 returns with a high of 18 while no one else has more than 1 punt return.
Jimmy Camacho (5-10, 180, Sr.) is Fresno State’s place kicker and was a second team Mt. West selection as he’s connected on 21-of-26 field goals this year with a high from 50 yards. Camacho also has 37 touchbacks on 74 kickoffs. That 50-percent touchback percentage is top-50 nationally. Blake Cusick (6-2, 185, So.) averages 42.3 yards on 64 punts while with a high of 66. He’s boomed 15 of his punts more than 50 yards, pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line 18 times and forcing 31 fair catches.
Houston’s Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) meanwhile has become Mr. Reliable, connecting on 10-of-12 in his first season after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. He also has 25 touchbacks on 60 kickoffs. Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) averages 41.6 yards-per-punt, pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line 23 times while forcing another 24 fair catches and booming 7 over 50 yards with a high of 59.
Keys to the game
Fresno State has what they call the “12-percent rule.” If drops, penalties, turnovers and sacks allowed account for less than 12-percent of their total snaps, they have a 90-percent chance of winning. In their last game at Boise State they had 8 penalties, 2 drops, 2 sacks allowed and a turnover (13 total) out of 69 total snaps which came out to be 19-percent. They barely lost 17-14.
Red zone efficiency is always key as you want “7’s” on offense and to allow just “3’s” on defense when inside the opponents 20-yard line. For the season Fresno State has scored touchdowns on 27-of-47 red zone possessions for 57-percent (87th) while Houston’s defense allows TD’s on just 21-of-42 attempts, 50-percent (tied for 15th). Houston’s offense has scored “7’s” on 30-of-44 possessions, 68-percent (29th) while Fresno State’s defense has allowed opponents to cross the goal line 20-of-35 times, 57-percent (54th) so it appears the Cougars have the edge there.
Fresno State has the advantage in the all-important turnover margin however as the Bulldogs are at a plus-8 (25th) as they have 19 takeaways to only 11 giveaways (tied for EIGHTH). Their 11 fumbles gained is 14th nationally. Houston’s minus-2 turnover margin has them ranked tied for 82nd. While the defense is ranked 29th with 14 interceptions their 21 total turnovers offensively (11 interceptions and 10 fumbles) has them tied for 91st.
Fresno State struggles on third down offensively, averaging just 35.5-percent (101st) while the Coogs defense allows a 39-percent conversion rate (73rd). Houston’s offense meanwhile converts on 45-percent of its third downs (18th) while Fresno State’s defense allows conversions at just a 33.5-percent clip (28th).
Finally, in a close game the team that hurts itself more with penalties is at a huge disadvantage as Fresno State averages just 5 penalties for 42 yards, both top-40 nationally. Houston meanwhile really hurts itself by averaging 6 penalties for 54.7 yards, 71st nationally.
In a low scoring defensive struggle, King is the wildcard with his legs as the Coogs have just enough to hold on late:
Houston – 21
Fresno State – 17