On their four hour bus trip back to Houston, the players and staff will have a lot of soul searching to do as they practically gave this game to the Ponies. Former Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin was always fond of saying that (at this level) most football games aren’t won, but lost, due to mistakes. The Cougars were only trailing 28-14 at halftime but had actually outgained the Mustangs in yards (243 to 188) and by almost two hundred by the end of the game (560 to 379). So how does a team lose with those kinds of stats you ask? Easy - The Cougars turned the ball over NINE times, which led to 45 Mustang points (this in a game in which SMU won by 30). Of those 45 points, 28 were scored directly by the Mustangs defense on three ‘pick six’ interception returns and one was returned off of a fumbled kickoff to begin the second half. That fumbled kickoff return, by true freshman Ryan Jackson, is where the wheels began to fall off for the Coogs as that mistake turned a manageable 28-14 deficit into a 35-14 hole and to be quite frank, this team just doesn’t have the necessary leaders (or coaching) to inspire the needed confidence in order to comeback from that huge of a deficit. NINE penalties for 73 yards also didn’t help the cause at all.
Every phase (offense, defense, special teams and coaching) of the team failed Thursday night in an inept display of football. And the mistakes began early, as in before the Cougars first officially offensive possession of the game. After a nice ‘three & out’ by the defense, receiver Dewayne Peace trotted out onto the field to return the first punt of the game. The junior allowed the ball to bounce off of his shoulder pads as he promptly fumbled the punt, allowing SMU to recover at the UH 11 yard line where (three players later) SMU receiver Jerry Rice, excuse me, Darius Johnson (9 receptions 110 yards) caught a seven yard out for the games first score. While they allowed SMU only 379 yards of total offense (their third best effort stats wise), there were still too many breakdowns, especially in coverage. SMU QB Garrett Gilbert, who had not completed more than half of his throws on the season, completed 23 of his 38 passes for 260 yards with 4 TDs (and 2 interceptions). Unfortunately, the Cougars secondary made him look like the second coming of Joe Montana. On Johnson’s first TD, Cougars strong safety Kent Brooks was caught looking in the backfield on a third & 6 play allowing Johnson to get by him for the score. This coverage, or lack thereof, by the secondary would be a theme all night long. On an 18 yard TD toss from Gilbert to Mustangs slot receiver Jeremy Johnson (9 receptions 94 yards), free safety Trevon Stewart was beat on a crossing pattern. Later in the game, Cougars corner Zach McMillian was burned on a deep post by Keenan Holman for his only catch on the evening, a 43 yarder for a TD that made the score 59-28 midway through the third. On Johnson’s second TD (and the Mustangs final offensive score), he burned Mike Linebacker Everett Daniels in a huge mismatch. Speaking of mismatches, SMU’s head coach and play caller, June Jones, had his offense in position to take advantages of the secondary’s busted coverages all night long, thanks in part to Cougars defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant’s typical soft zone in which he had his guys play for most of the game (with the corners back off of their man by at least 7 to 10 yards). Jones moved Johnson around the field all night so Bryant couldn’t play his best cover corner, D.J. Hayden, on him, which proved to be a nice move as Hayden had his own ‘pick 6’ that he took 75 yards to the house early in the fourth quarter to make it a 59-42 game. Basically, it seemed like which ever SMU receiver was in the slot was a mismatch as the Cougars secondary gave them too much space. The communication between members of the Cougars back end seemed to be lacking as well with many Mustang receivers moving freely from one zone to the next without the next guy picking them up.
When speaking of bad pass coverage, the blame cannot be placed on the secondary alone. The sharing of the blame must be on the front seven as well, as they failed to place the necessary pressure on Gilbert which allowed him to just stand in the pocket and pick out his receivers at will. Cougars linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews, who had been combining for around 21 tackles per game, only combined for 10 tackles total against a young SMU offensive line. Throughout the season, Bryant had been lining up one of them along the edge in a 5-2 look, but that proved to be ineffective against SMU as Jones kept 230 pound running back, Zack Line, in along the line of scrimmage to help in pass protection. Daniels led the backers with 10 tackles (including 3 for loss) and had a sack as he lined up more along the edge in blitzing situations.
The front four of Zeke Riser, Joey Mbu, Radermon Scypion and Kelvin King also failed to disrupt the pocket or put any pressure on Gilbert. Mbu did show nice hands on a nice interception off of a deflected pass though. The defensive line also failed in keeping contain too many times as they were pushed out of their rush lanes by the Mustangs offensive line, allowing Line to rush for 117 yards on 22 carries with 49 of those yards coming on 10 carries in an 8 minute drive in the fourth that killed any hope of a comeback by the Coogs. In all, this defensive game plan was a fail by Coach Bryant simply because he did not put his players in a position to succeed, which was sad because the defense played decently when forcing SMU to drive the entire length of the field in order to score. The defense forced six ‘3 & outs’ on the game and at one point from the end of the first quarter through the second, SMU had gained only 4 yards on 10 plays.
Coach Bryant’s failure to get his guys to play basic fundamental football was not alone however, as Travis Bush also had his worst game as offensive coordinator in his short career at UH. Quarterback David Piland finished the game 15 of 25 for 180 yards with one TD passing, but he was placed in too many 3rd & long situations due to suspect play calling, in my opinion. Teams are now beginning to key in on running back Charles Sims and too many times he was stonewalled at the line of scrimmage causing a 2nd & long situation. After too many incompletions on 2nd down, due mainly to various types of blitzing by the Stangs line, Piland finished too many drives with a 3rd & long, which is no recipe for success. With the game getting so out of hand, the running game had to be abandoned as Sims finished the game with only 55 yards on 17 carries. Kenneth Farrow only had 3 carries for 10 yards. Piland once again had a nice game running with 28 yards on 5 carries, including a nice 18 yarder to extend a drive on a 3rd & 10 situation early in the second quarter, as he made a nice decision in pulling the ball down quickly as he saw man coverage with all of the Mustang defensive players with their backs towards him. He still has a lot to learn however as he needs to sell his QB keepers better. One in particular where he pulled the ball down too quickly and ran for zero yards up the middle. The play was set up nicely though as the backfield was empty, so as to spread out the Mustangs defense from sideline to sideline.
Piland started out the game smoothly as he got into a rhythm early as he led the way on two scoring drives (of over 10 plays each) that tied the game at 14, but after SMU began blitzing more, he became a little shaky and started locking in on his receivers again. This old habit came back to haunt him right before halftime as he locked in on a receiver and Mustang linebacker Taylor Reed stepped right in front of his pass at the Cougars seven yard line, taking it in for the score to give the Ponies an insurmountable 28-14 lead just before halftime. A few plays later, after Piland was knocked out of the game with a concussion by Reed (who finished the game with 5 tackles and 2 interceptions), Crawford Jones and Bram Kohlhausen played decently the rest of the way. Jones, the veteran redshirt senior, finished the game 17 of 33 for 252 yards with 3 TDs (and 2 picks) in his first extensive playing time of his career. Bram entered the game after Piland went down and completed only 2 of 7 passes, including 2 interceptions – one of which was returned 10 yards for a score on a busted screen pass that gave SMU a 45-14 lead early in the third. With Piland possibly out next week, it’s anybodies guess as to who starts against UTEP next Saturday at the Rob.
Of course the QBs would look much better if the wide receivers would learn how to hold onto the ball. In going back to another bad habit, it seemed as if the ‘dropsies’ once again hurt the receivers in big situations. One in particular where Daniel Spencer had the ball hit right off of his hands high into the air for an interception, this after dropping the previous pass. Spence more than made up for it later in the game catching 3 balls for 70 yards on a scoring drive, including a 7 yard TD from Jones that brought the Coogs to within 45-28 midway through the third quarter. He finished the game with 7 receptions for 96 yards and said TD. The Cougars leading receiver was Sims, who hauled in 7 passes as well, for 114 yards including a 49 yard swing pass that brought the score to within 59-35 near the end of the third. Peace finished the game with 4 receptions for 41 yards and Larry McDuffy caught 3 passes for 50 yards. Most disappointing was probably slot receiver Shane Ros, not in so much as he only caught 2 passes for 24 yards, but in how sparingly he was used after playing fantastic in the Coogs previous two wins. The biggest, but not unexpected, surprise was the coming out party of Deontay Greenberry – whom caught 6 passes for 94 yards as he seemed to be on cue early with Piland. Overall, the Cougars were manhandled along both lines of scrimmage but their offensive line in particular. Along with the play of Reed, defensive end Margus Hunt rag dolled the Cougars line, especially the right side of Ralph Oragwu at right tackle and Jacolby Ashworth at guard, to the tune of 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 4 QB hurries and a pass break up.
Head coach Tony Levine must be livid at his special teams play, which in a word was atrocious. Three fumbles by the punt and kickoff return teams led to 14 SMU points (and probably would have been more if not for that Mbu interception inside the Cougars 20 yard line). Peace isn’t even averaging 5 yards a return on his 11 on the season. His problem is that he wants to make a move laterally, instead of just planting his foot in the grass and taking off up field, like he did last week against UAB in which he had his best return of the season (of 29 yards). Jackson is barely averaging 18 yards per kickoff return on his seven on the season. The Cougars are better just hoping the opposing team kicks into the endzone so they can get a touchback, giving the Coogs the ball at the 25 yard line, as opposed to inside the 15 that has occurred too many times when Jackson ill-advisedly attempts to return one. The two fumbles by Peace and Jackson also came at bad times (as if there are good times to fumble the ball), as one came at the beginning of the game (in Peace’s case) and one to begin the half (Jackson), which handed over any momentum the Coogs had right over to the Mustangs in both cases. Luckily Richie Leone had a few nice booming punts and is still one of the nations best in averaging 47.7 yards per punt. Football is said to be a game of field position, and because of the horrible special teams play SMU began their drives at their own 40 yard line on average, with the Cougars beginning on their own 22.
It’s also said that coaches coach and players play. While this may be true, it’s up to the coaches to put their players in the best possible position in order to succeed, and that’s not what the coaching staff did Thursday night due to a few peculiar coaching calls. After a 92 yard scoring drive that put SMU up 21-14 with just over a minute to go before halftime, the Coogs caught what appeared to be a break with a Jackson 44 yard kickoff return. Unfortunately a holding call pushed the ball back to the Cougars 8 yard line. Instead of running the ball a few times and going into halftime only trailing by a TD, Levine has the offense go up-tempo and on a 2nd & long, Piland telegraphs the pass that Reed intercepts for a ‘pick 6’ to put the Ponies up 28-14. So now after they receive the kickoff they take a knee and head to the locker room for sure, right?? Of course not, in trying to go up-tempo yet again, Piland gets KO’d by Reed knocking him out for the game, and for who knows how much longer. This ‘pedal to the medal’ offensive philosophy (no matter which QB is in the game) must be slowed down at times. Sometimes it’s ok to run the clock out and head to the locker room to regroup. The other peculiar move to me was the switching of QBs. I guess I can understand taking Bram out of the game after tossing two picks, but then put him back in the game in the fourth quarter, when it’s all but over anyway just to let him get some playing time. The coaching staff has no idea if he can be the QB of the future (or even the starter next week if Piland is out) if he doesn’t receive meaningful snaps in game action. And of course on the second muffed punt return attempt, why were there even any Cougars anywhere near the ball? In that situation, in which Luke Stice kicked the ball as he tried to step over it, once the ball hits the ground no Cougar should be anywhere close to the ball, in order to avoid exactly what happened – another turnover. That one is squarely on the coaching staff and special teams coordinator Jamie Christian, in my opinion. Also, there is no reason for Peace or Jackson to return anymore punts and kickoffs as they’ve showed that they cannot handle the respective jobs. Damian Payne had a nice 10 yard punt return that was also wiped out by a penalty (surprise) and Farrow has done a decent enough job on kickoff returns to let them continue holding onto the jobs, until proven otherwise. Payne returned a punt 76 yards for a TD last season at Tulane and some had said he was going to be the heir apparent to Patrick Edwards; alas it was not to be as Peace has done a better job in practice apparently.
In all, it was a very rough night for the Cougars, but they can still win the CUSA’s Western division if they win out (which right now seems mightily suspect), and Tulsa defeats SMU in Dallas the last game of the regular season. They say adversity makes the man, well we’re about to find out with our Coogs, starting next Saturday as they host the UTEP Miners at the Rob at 3pm on CSS. Despite their play Thursday night, this team still deserves our support.