In doing so, they are now 2-0 in the Western Division of Conference-USA heading into a key Thursday night contest at Dallas against the Mustangs of SMU.
The story of this game had to be the defensive play, under first year defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant. The Cougars entered the game allowing opponents to rush for more than 200 yards per game, but only allowed the Blazers 35 yards on 27 carries. Even if you added in the 58 yards lost on an outstanding EIGHT sacks by the front seven, UAB would have only rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries. Of course the Blazers had to all but abandon their running game after the Cougars took control of the game in the third quarter after scoring on all four possessions changing a close 16-10 game into a 39-17 laugher.
This massive defensive effort was once again led by linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews, who were all over the field (much as they have been the entire season). Much has been made of the scheme switch by Bryant from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but in reality the Cougars are at their best when they play in a 5-2 front when Steward and/or Mathews flank the edges where they can either blitz, or peel back and play the pass. Steward led the charge with 13 tackles (including 3 for loss), 2.5 sacks and an interception. Mathews had 8 total tackles (including 2 for loss) and while he only had one sack he was close to many more as he had 4 ‘QB hurries' in which the pressure is so great that it forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball before he wants. Everett Daniels also added five tackles from his Mike (or middle) line backing spot. Among the reserves at linebacker, George Bamfo is playing better as of late from his weak side spot as he added half a sack and tackle for loss amongst his few QB hurries.
The front four of Zeke Riser, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Kelvin King played gap sound up front while the linebackers and secondary came up and filled in where needed in stopping the Blazers ground game. With Lloyd Allen (at left end) and Radermon Scypion (at tackle) not playing (for unspecified reasons), Bryant had to ‘mix and match' up front while depending on some Cougar defenders contributing for the first time this season. Included in that group up front were Jeremiah Farley and Eric Braswell (at tackle). In his first significant playing time this season, Farley sacked the Blazers quarter back, Austin Brown, on the Blazers first offensive possession of the game. Speaking of Brown, the young redshirt freshman won't forget his trip to Houston as he was sacked and/or hit more than 20 times on the game as he had a nice view of the Houston sun on the beautiful 85 degree day as he spent most of it on his back. For the first time the entire season, there was a Braswell sighting at the Rob as he added a sack and a tackle for loss among his four tackles. Desmond Pulliam and William Moore also played significant snaps at end in reserve. Particularly surprising was the play of Moore (especially at end) as the 6-foot-2 inch, 205 pounder played safety and linebacker sparingly last season as a true freshman. When the game was still in doubt early on, Moore used his quickness in applying pressure along the edge as he contributed half a sack and a tackle for loss on the game as did redshirt senior Ameen Behbahani inside at tackle. The Cougars are going to need this depth as Riser left the game in the third quarter with an apparent lower leg injury. Without Riser, Allen and Scypion (if they indeed do not play), the rest of the front four will have to step it up against pass happy SMU Thursday night.
Corner back D.J. Hayden led the secondary yet again as he was second on the team with 9 tackles, many coming on run support. He also had two pass breakups and recovered a fumble that helped to thwart a potential scoring drive midway through the third quarter when the game was still relatively close. The Coogs led 26-10 at the time of Hayden's recovery which led to a touchdown drive that put the game out of reach at 33-10. The fumble was forced by free safety Chris Cermin, who was filling in for the injured Trevon Stewart (who left the game in the second quarter with an ankle or knee injury). Although Cermin contributed 8 tackles, Stewart's absence was definitely felt as he is a true game changer as he is always around the ball. Colton Valencia and Kent Brooks played ok in splitting the snaps at strong safety as they combined for only five tackles on the game. True freshman Adrian McDonald played a second consecutive effective game spelling Hayden as he contributed four tackles. At the corner spot opposite Hayden, Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates both played nice games although they only had two tackles a piece. McMillian's lone pass breakup was ‘Brooks-esque' as he laid out a Blazer wide receiver over the middle of the field as he left his man in the Cougars zone defense to cover a receiver in the lower zone area. Overall, the pass defense played well, minus a few possessions marred by bad tackling, including one in which they allowed nearly 80 yards on consecutive completions (that led to a Blazers field goal which brought the score to a 16-10 Cougars lead in the middle of the second quarter). Of the Blazers 334 total passing yards (on 23 of 49 passing), 101 of them came in the fourth quarter, after the game was well in hand. Add the 80 mentioned earlier and that's nearly half of the Blazers passing yards that came on only three possessions.
Offensively, after a slow start (by Cougars standards) in which they only led 16-10, the team started to assert its will in the second half and third quarter in particular, especially in the running game as the team rushed for 83 of its 185 yards in the quarter. Once again the running game was centered around running back Charles Sims, who had his third straight dominating game in rushing for 133 yards on 26 carries. In the third quarter alone Sims rushed for 53 yards on only seven carries. The redshirt junior was able to take his choice in bursting through any number of open running lanes as the smaller Blazer defensive front began to wear down against the much more physical and bigger Cougars offensive line. The only negative as far as Sims overall play is concerned is his handling of the ball. It seems sometimes he holds the ball too far away from his body while running, easily allowing defenders to knock it loose as what happened early in the first quarter as he fumbled the rock. The game plan, created by Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush, keyed in on the smaller Blazers front seven by establishing the running game and rushing Sims (in particular) off tackle as he rushed for 81 yards in the first half alone (29 of which came on a trick play when it appeared the Cougars would just down the ball and head to the locker room with just under a minute remaining until halftime). Of course it took Sims 19 first half carries to gain his 81 yards as the Blazers coaching staff was determined not to let Sims beat them. Even with many of Sims carries netting one or two yards early on (which created many second and long situations), Bush kept pounding away with Sims. UAB played man coverage in the secondary allowing their line backing core to play in the box. Blazers middle linebacker Marvin Burdette had 17 tackles, with many of them assisting team mates in gang tackling the cat quick yet physically imposing Sims. Kenneth Farrow only rushed for 18 yards on five carries but three of those came early in the decisive third quarter in which he rushed for 13 and scored his only touchdown of the game on a one yard run up the middle, giving the Coogs a 23-10 lead and some much needed breathing room. Ryan Jackson also contributed in the running game as he finished the contest with 17 yards on 6 carries with 10 of those also coming in that decisive third quarter as well on a draw up the middle giving the team a 33-10 lead. Braxton Welford finished off the game by rushing for 21 yards on 4 carries including a 17 yarder in which he did his best Michael Hayes impersonation as he bounced off of a few Blazers defenders.
After pounding away in the first half with the running game, Cougars QB David Piland came out throwing to begin the second as he completed four of his five passes for 55 yards all on slants over the middle. The receivers were open mainly due to the UAB linebackers playing in the box in part because of the offensive play calling by Bush. The Cougars ran 95 plays, 49 of which were rushes. Even when the game was in doubt the play calling remained balanced as they both rushed and passed 29 times each through their first 58 snaps. Piland completed 32 of his 44 passes for 362 yards with one TD to receiver Shane Ros. The diminutive Ros led the receivers with 114 yards on just seven receptions from his slot position as the walk-on was left wide open on numerous crossing patterns over the middle. Dewayne Peace caught five passes for 61 yards and both Larry McDuffy and Ronnie Williams caught 4 passes for 53 yards each. True freshman Deontay Greenberry continues to struggle as accumulated 25 yards on only 3 receptions with a few drops.
As has been the case for the past few games, major props should be given to the offensive line (from left to right) of Rowdy Harper, Ty Cloud, Kevin Forsch, Jacolby Ashworth and Ralph Oragwu with Zach Johnson, Josh McNeil and Bryce Redman (who took over at center after an injured Forsch left the game in the first half) in reserve. Austin Lunsford and DeAnthony Sims were brought in when the Cougars went to their ‘jumbo package' of a seven man offensive line in short yardage situations. The line blocked effectively in either their inside or outside zone along with their man blocking schemes in opening up many holes in the Blazers defensive front, especially in the second half, as previously mentioned. They also gave Piland plenty of time in the pocket, allowing the redshirt sophomore to even step up into the pocket numerous times as he delivered many of his passes with authority. Both Crawford Jones and Bram Kohlhausen saw their first playing time of the season as well. While Jones just handed the ball off to his backs, Bram showed nice touch on both of his passes as he completed both of them for 18 yards, one to Kenneth Bibbins Jr for 11 yards. Because of his size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) I've expected more out of the redshirt sophomore as he should be a mismatch problem for smaller defensive backs or slower safeties/linebackers, but for whatever reason(s) it just hasn't happened yet. The saving grace is that he's very young so he still has time to blossom. The Cougar receiver I most compare him to, Justin Johnson, didn't realize his potential until his redshirt senior year after all.
The special teams had yet another nice showing, especially from stalwarts Richie Leone (punter/place kicker) and Matt Hogan (kicker). Leone lost nearly a yard from his national leading punting average (from 48 to 47.2) due to a bad 21 yard punt late in the fourth quarter. His first punt earlier in the game was a more Leonie-like 54 yards. He had five touchbacks on eight kickoffs with the Blazers only averaging around 17 yards per return as the kickoff coverage unit was superb yet again. Return wise, Peace finally busted a nice punt return for 29 yards in the middle of the third quarter. It's nice to see what he can do once he plants his foot and cuts up field decisively, rather than the dancing he does once he catches the punt. Hogan set school and CUSA records with six field goals (on seven attempts) including a 52 yarder.
Why Hogan kicked six field goals is another story all together, and probably the only disappointing facet of the coaching and play of the Cougars overall. Entering play Saturday, the offense was only 95th in the nation in terms of scoring TDs in the redzone area (inside the opponents 20 yard line), as they had only scored 9 TDs on 18 total redzone possessions. That ranking should plummet to near the bottom of the NCAA stat book as they scored TDs on only 3 of 9 redzone possessions against the Blazers. Hogan kicked field goals of 23 (twice), 26, 27 and 29 yards as the Cougars run offense was stymied three times in the first half inside the red zone. Personally, I would have gone for it on fourth down on two of their first three possessions when they had a 4th & 4 from the UAB 12 yard line on their second possession of the game, and then a 4th & 2 later in the second from the Blazer 10 yard line as usually (with the Cougars defense mainly), TDs are needed – not field goals. Of course I was proven wrong with the stellar play of the defensive side of the ball. Speaking of coaching, Coach Bush showed both patience and creativity in the offensive game calling and Coach Bryant once again dialed up his numerous blitzes at just the right time, while also moving Steward and Mathews so the Blazers could not locate where they were coming from. Each week it seems that there is a coaching ‘point of emphases' in which the coaching staff goes over during practice each week. Practice this week will definitely be focused on scoring TDs in the redzone, tackling and communicating better in the secondary as to not allow huge plays in the passing game.
As the team heads to Dallas Thursday night to face SMU in only their second true road contest of the season, head coach Tony Levine summed up the teams collective mindset when he said (via uhcougars.com), "We've got some guys who are used to winning and understand how to win. We've also got some guys that might have been around or seen it but are now understanding that as well. Our guys know what it takes to win and I think you have seen that a little more these past two weeks."