Cougars saddle the Ponies

Cougars saddle the Ponies

Before a rowdy record crowd of 32,207 the 11th ranked and undefeated Houston Cougars (11-0, 6-0 in CUSA) continued their most improbable season in team history, defeating the SMU Mustangs 37-7, inching one step closer to the team's third Conference USA championship and their first Bowl Championship Series automatic bowl game.

Just about everything that can be said already has been about quarterback Case Keenum, but this game proved once again just how much of a true maestro in the pocket the man has QB as he completed 30 of 45 passes for 318 yards with one touchdown passing and one rushing. For the game, the stat sheet will reflect that SMU had zero sacks of the elusive quarterback, but by my count there should have been at least three when Keenum magically escaped the grasp of SMU defenders. Multiple times in the game Keenum showed that he has a knack for not only making a play with his arm, but also his legs as his ability to escape from the pocket was on full display against the Ponies. Keenum had only 21 rushing yards on 4 carries but one of them was a beautiful 16 yard TD run up the middle that put the game away giving the Coogs a 30-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He also was able to create separation from defenders with his legs in order to create throwing lanes and give his receivers more time to get open. This is the major difference between the Keenum led offense of this year and the offense young freshman David Piland led last year after Keenum was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Case has repeatedly shown an innate ability to not only know when and where the pass rush was coming from, but he's also been able to pull off Houdini type escapes regularly not only to avoid a sack, but to also keep a play alive downfield. Last year when Piland faced pressure, he would either throw the ball away or take the sack. That's not a negative mind you, it's just the major difference between an offense averaging more than 400 yards passing per game as has the Keenum led offenses of 2008 (401), 2009 (430) and this season (456) and last year's in which Piland passed for "only" 327 per game.

The game had an ominous start offensively for the Coogs as they could not establish their ground game versus a stout SMU defensive front. The Mustangs were more than effective at pressuring Case with their defensive front four (or sometimes five) as they were able to drop seven or even eight off in coverage. The Ponies also brought most of their defensive pressure off of the edges, not giving Keenum the time he needed to get the ball down field. This strategy was effective for only so long as not only was Keenum intelligent enough to step up into the pocket - giving him extra time to find his receivers, but also the blitzing off the edges gave the Cougars running backs room to run once they broke free from the first wave of defenders in front of SMU's zone defense. This was the case (no pun intended) in Michael Hayes 36 yard TD run that gave the Coogs a solid 13-0 lead towards the end of the first half. Hayes had 68 yards on 15 carries with Charles Sims chipping in with 44 on 8. Bryce Beall had only two carries for fourteen yards but contributed more in the passing game as he had 36 yards on 3 receptions with Sims catching 5 passes for 33 yards and Hayes 78 yards on his 3 catches. In total the Cougars had 148 yards on the game, 25 below their season average of 173 yards per game against a tough SMU defensive front led by ends Taylor Thompson, Marquis Frazier and nose tackle Torian Pittman along with will or rush backer Ja'Gared Davis. Their athleticism and quickness as a defensive line was particularly shown on a one-on-one tackle for loss by the 6-foot-6 285 pound Thompson against Cougars speedster Tyron Carrier on an end around during the second quarter, although a horse collar penalty should have been assessed on the play.

As for the wide receivers, it was slot receiver Justin Johnson's turn to take the limelight among his Cougar peers as he had 99 yards on 9 receptions including his eighth TD of the season on a beautiful bootleg by Keenum fooling the entire SMU defense. On the play Johnson motioned out of the backfield as if he were going to block on a 4th and 1 from the SMU 12 yard line out of the Cougars "jumbo package" in which Johnson lines up in the backfield as an H-back and reserve offensive lineman Bryce Redman lines up at tight end. As Johnson was scoring Patrick Edwards was seen driving his man into the endzone on yet another selfless play by Cougar wide receivers on the season. Coach Sumlin has said many times that for each "explosive play" the Cougars break it is a wide receiver making a block down the field that turns a 10 yard gain into a 60 yarder. Edwards had only 38 yards on 5 receptions as did Carrier as the Mustangs defensive backs did a nice job in coverage, particularly corner back Richard Crawford who was often left in man coverage against Edwards.

Defensively, the Cougars might have played their best game of the season even if the stats don't reflect it. Even though they shut out Georgia State and held East Carolina to a mere three points, this may have been the Cougars best effort considering who they were playing. In holding the Ponies to 24 rushing yards on 26 carries the defensive front of ends David Hunter, Eric Braswell and nose tackle Dominic Miller held up well at the point of attack against the NCAA's most experienced and one of the largest offensive lines in the nation, as did end reserves Kelvin King, Lloyd Allen, Zeke Riser and nose Austin Lunsford. The Cougars defensive linemen were moving around a lot, trying to disguise where the blitz was coming from. Also, Hunter continues lining up at nose tackle quite a bit on the season giving the Cougars more speed along the line.

Having SMU top rusher Zach Line out of the game helped the Cougars no doubt as Line's 1,224 rushing yards led CUSA. His replacement, Jared Williams, only had 49 yards on the entire season and none since late September. Without the burley Line in the game the Cougars were able to drop seven to eight in coverage as they were not worried about Ponies QB J.J. McDermott beating them with his arm. The senior completed 23 of his 40 passes for 239 yards with one interception and one TD. His interception came at a key time in the game as Sam linebacker Phillip Steward read McDermott's eyes perfectly in intercepting a pass in the endzone at the end of the Ponies first drive of the second half when they were only trailing 13-0. A touchdown, or even a field goal, would have ratcheted up the pressure on the Cougars. A turnover is not what SMU needed at that time, but that has been the defenses specialty as they have forced 22 total turnovers on the season (14 interceptions and 8 fumbles) and committed only 12 (4 and 8) for a turnover margin of plus .91 on the season, one of the tops in the nation. The interception was a team leading fourth for Steward. On SMU's next offensive possession they once again were driving until corner back DJ Hayden forced a fumble by McDermott after a 9 yard run at the Cougar 45. The fumble was recovered by strong safety Kent Brooks. The Cougars would go on to score on the 12 yard reception by Johnson off of the bootleg to put the Coogs up 23-0 midway through the third. The Cougars secondary played well considering how little pressure the defensive front put on SMU for the game. When defensive coordinator did decide to blitz, it was usually Will linebacker Sammy Brown who was called up to apply said pressure. Brown had three sacks to add to his nation leading 12.5 to go along with 4.5 tackles for loss giving him an incredible 26 on the season and 46 in only two seasons. He now has 20 sacks in his brief two year Cougar career. Marcus McGraw had a pedestrian six tackles on the game but still has 105 for the season, one of the tops in the nation.

The Cougars were outcoached on special teams that included a 54 yard kickoff return on an across the field throwback and a fake punt that resulted in a first down for the Ponies early on as they were only trailing 6-0 at the time. SMU was also winning the field position battle early in the game as well. The Mustangs began five of their first seven offensive possessions on at least their own 35 yard line due to poor kickoff coverage by the Cougars. They allowed freshman James Richardson to return five kickoffs for an average of 27 yards. Kicker Jordan Mannisto had only one touchback on his six kickoffs. Matt Hogan was relied on heavily due to the Cougars lack of efficiency in the red zone as he kicked field goals of 28, 22 and 21 yards. He has been successful on ten of his twelve field goals this year and is an incredible 36 of 41 on his career, which is mighty important considering that Boise State has lost only two games over the past two years, both on missed field goals. Punter Richie Leone only averaged 30 yards on three punts but one of them was placed inside the 20, his ninth of the season. Edwards averaged 12 yards on two punt returns and Carrier did not attempt to return a kickoff as the Ponies kicked away from him on their two attempts. Carrier is still tied for the all time NCAA career kickoff returns for touchdown at seven with former Clemson running back C.J. Spiller.

All in all, although this wasn't the prettiest win, it was the tough kind of victory that was needed to test the teams resolve. They haven't faced adversity as a team since the fifth game of the season in a 49-42 win at UTEP. As head coach Kevin Sumlin said during his post game press conference, "these next few weeks are championship weeks." The first step includes the Cougars opportunity to clinch the C-USA's Western division crown for the fourth time in school history when they travel to face the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (whom they are currently tied with at 7-0 in the division) for a Friday game which will be broadcast on the Fox Sports Net affiliates at noon Eastern time.

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