Game 12 Preview – Tulane

The Houston Cougars host the Tulane Green Wave in their final game at Robertson Stadium this Saturday. Game time is set for 2:30pm (CST) and will be televised by Fox Sports Net. Not only will this game mark the end for Robertson Stadium but will also be a new beginning for the Cougars as well as they are set to depart Conference USA for the Big East Conference for the 2013 season.

While it has been a long and unsuccessful season for the Coogs (4-7 overall and 3-4 in CUSA), their last game at Marshall was somewhat encouraging as they made a valiant comeback effort after trailing 31-10 at halftime to tie the game at 41 with just over a minute remaining in the game. Unfortunately they let Marshall drive down a short field after a special teams snafu (kicking the ball out of bounds) for a game winning 45 yard field goal for a 44-41 win.

The Green Wave (2-9, 2-5) and Cougars have quite a bit in common, from both teams moving to new stadiums beginning in the 2014 season to first year head coaches (Tony Levine for the Cougars and Curtis Johnson for Tulane) to these coaches and programs having to deal with almost tragic situations. For Johnson’s Green Wave, his team had to deal with an injury to senior safety DeVon Walker in the team’s second game at Tulsa. Walker was seriously injured when he suffered a cervical spine fracture after he collided with a teammate while attempting to make a tackle on the final play of the first half of that game. And obviously everyone reading this knows of the freakish injury that fell upon our own senior cornerback D.J. Hayden when he was injured during a collision with teammate Trevon Stewart just over three weeks ago, sustaining a tear of the inferior vena cava (the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body back to the heart). The injury proves to be 95 percent fatal and is most likely to occur in victims of car accidents. Johnson’s take on both injuries during his weekly media press conference via TulaneGreenWave.com, “You know I would say this; our prayers go out to this young man and his family. He was one of their better players just like Devon was one of our better players and he's out for the season, but you know fortunately I think the future is bright for both of those young men. We just have to continue to pray and continue to support them. But it's a tough deal for any football team to go through."

The Green Wave’s record might not be too impressive, but they are trending upward – winning two of their past six games with those four losses by an average of only 6 points per game (after losing their first five games by an average margin of 33.4). Their fans are optimistic also about their recent recruiting efforts under Johnson (who spent the past six seasons as the New Orleans Saints wide receivers coach and has 25 years of both college and pro experience, winning a Super Bowl with the Saints and a National Championship with the University of Miami in 2001). Thus far, Tulane has 18 commits with all being local (15 from Louisiana and 12 from the greater New Orleans metro area). This all on top of starting 8 true freshman this season. To say there is a youth movement going on in New Orleans would be a major understatement, but the fans understand what’s going on.

As for the game itself, Tulane looks a lot like Houston in the aspect of being a pass first spread offense that is quite frankly, lousy on defense (not being able to stop the run will do that to a team). Under offensive coordinator Eric Price (who brings five total seasons of OC experience from his days at UTEP from 2004 through 07, under his father Mike Price, followed by as two seasons receivers coach for the Kansas City Chiefs then the past two seasons at Memphis), Tulane ranks 4th in CUSA and 37th nationally averaging 273.9 yards passing per game. Their quarterback, Ryan Griffin, has played in 41 career games with 38 starts, completing 800 of 1330 passes (.602) for 8680 yards, 54 touchdowns and 31 interceptions while catching a pass for 15 yards and scoring one rushing touchdown. In Tulane career history, Griffin ranks first in completions (800) and completion percentage (.602), second in passing yards (8,680), pass attempts (1330), attempts per game (32.4), completions per game (19.5) and 300 yard games (9), third in passing yards per

game (211.7), fifth in touchdown passes (54), touchdown passes per game (1.317) and passing efficiency (123.7), and 10th in yards per attempt (6.526). This season he has completed nearly 64 percent of his passes (209 for 328) for 2,425 yards with 18 TDs to only 7 interceptions in 8 starts. His favorite target receiving would be junior Ryan Grant. The junior has caught 63 passes this season for 1,041 yards which ranks him first in CUSA and 16th nationally. He also averages an impressive 16.5 yards per catch and 6 TDs. The defensive back for the Coogs whose job it will be in covering the physical yet speedy 6-foot-1 inch 190 pound native of Beaumont will probably be rotated among Zach McMillian, Thomas Bates and Adrian McDonald. All three have been burned in coverage, especially deep, but it’s not totally their fault as they are left in coverage solo often due to the front four’s ability to put pressure on opposing QB’s under defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant’s 4-3 scheme.

 

Griffin’s second favorite target is running back Rob Kelley (46 receptions for 340 yards and 4 TDs) who is also the teams leading rusher (80 rushes for 281 yards). Kelley is a stout 225 pounder who is a mismatch coming out of the backfield for most linebackers and will be a test for Cougar linebackers Phillip Steward (SLB) and Derrick Mathews (WLB), both of whom are as adept in coverage as they are causing havoc in opponent’s backfields as they are second and third in the conference in tackles for loss, with Stewart being first in sacks (10). Cougars MLB Everett Daniels has been improving almost every week after a slow start in adjusting to replacing the defenses all-time leading tackler (Marcus McGraw). For the season he is fourth on the team with 103 tackles (including 10.5 for loss) and 5 sacks. The Cougars linebackers have accounted for 21 of the defenses 33 tackles which ranks them 2nd in the conference and 10th nationally. Sophomores Xavier Rush (37 receptions for 439 yards with 4 TDs) and Justyn Shackleford (28, 431, 2) along with junior Wilson Van Hooser (10, 176, 4) round out the options at wide out for the Green Wave. Griffin likes to hit both Shackleford and Van Hooser in the intermediate to deeper post routes as both average over 15 yards per reception (Shackleford at 15.4 and Van Hooser at 17.6 in limited playing time). It will be up to Bates, McMillian and McDonald along with strong safety Kent Brooks (51 tackles with 1 interception and fumble recovery a piece) to be able to handle the crafty Tulane wideouts in one-on-one coverage if need be. Overall this season the Cougars defense has allowed opponents to pass for a league worst 285 yards per game, which also ranks 114th in the nation, or tenth from the bottom. The secondary has struggled even with Hayden, who is tied with McMillian and Tulane true freshman corner Lorenzo Doss for the league lead as all three have four interceptions on the season. Free safety Trevon Stewart has been a beast in stopping the run game from his free safety slot as he is first on the team with 52 solo tackles but has struggled in keeping up with his assignments in pass coverage, which isn’t unusual for a true freshman.

 

Price likes to use a lot of two tight end sets, but rarely throws to them as they are used mainly for blocking. Sophomore’s Matt Marfisi (6’6, 250) and Evan Tatford (6’5, 247) have combined for only 14 receptions for 40 yards total this season. The offensive line had to replace four starters from last season and the results have shown as Tulane rushes for a putrid 39.3 yards per game, which (as you guessed) are dead last in the conference yet only second to last in the nation (Washington State averages only 30 yards per game). Along their line, only right tackle Eric Jones (6’7, 311) had any starting experience returning. The senior has now started 26 consecutive games (including this season). Sean Donnelly is a monster at left tackle as the sophomore is a mammoth 6’8, 311 pounder. The line consists of one senior, two juniors and two sophomores. It’s probably due to this youth and height (none of them are below 6’5) that they are easily pushed around to the tune of allowing a league worst 31 sacks on the season. Usually along the line you want shorter linemen, as it is easier for them to gain leverage against opposing defensive linemen. The number one rule in the battle along the line of scrimmage is that usually the shorter is usually the first to gain leverage which usually wins his one-on-one battle as getting under your opponents pad level allows you to steer them where you want them to go, instead of vice versa.

 

If there is any game this season where the Coogs defensive linemen need to get off their blocks and stay in their assigned gaps, it’s this game as Tulane’s run game shouldn’t pose much of a threat. Ends Lloyd Allen (3 sacks with 5 tackles for loss) and Zeke Riser (2 sacks with 7 tackles for loss) along with tackles Joey Mbu and Radermon Scypion must be able to get under and push Tulane’s line back, not only to stop Tulane’s rushing game but to disrupt Griffin inside the pocket. Eric Braswell and Kelvin King at end along with Dominic Miller and Tomme Mark at tackle must help out in relief in stopping the aforementioned Kelley and Orleans Darkwa (70 rushes for 218 yards) at running back. Darkwa has been in and out of the lineup lately with concussion symptoms. If he cannot go on Saturday then Dante Butler takes his spot. The 210 pound sophomore has only rushed for 115 yards on 34 rushes in limited playing time this season. As a team, Tulane is tied for last in the nation with only three TDs rushing (all by Darkwa).  This game could be a much needed elixir for a Cougars defense that enters the game allowing opponents to rush for 207 yards per game, which ranks tenth in the conference and 104th nationally, as the earlier mentioned non-ability for the line to get off of their blocks or stay disciplined enough to play their assigned run gaps have spelled doom all season.

 

As bad as the defense has played this season for the Cougars, some of it must be laid at the feet of the offense, under coordinator Travis Bush. Under Levine’s direction, the offense has played their up-tempo style basically the entire season whether the offense was producing on the field or not. With way too many ‘three and outs’ under their belt, the offense has put the defense in bad position all season long as the ‘O’ has only stayed on the field for an average of a tad over 24 minutes per game, which ranks dead last in both the conference and nation. The starting QB most of the season, David Piland, has been under too much pressure in carrying the entire offense, especially without being able to rely on ‘all-everything’ running back Charles Sims, whom has been injured for much of the season. While the redshirt sophomore hasn’t had a bad season, it hasn’t been very good either (by Cougars standards) as he is only completing 57 percent of his passes and has tossed only 16 TDs to 12 interceptions. Neither of those numbers is good enough to lead an ‘Air Raid’ based offense. With Piland out (due to lower leg injuries), senior Crawford Jones will be starting his final game at the Rob. Jones (who is completing 60 percent of his 85 total passes on the season), completed 70 percent of his passes last week in leading the previously mentioned comeback at Marshall last week as he finished the game 31 of 44 for 316 yards with 5 TDs and no interceptions. After shaking off a rusty start, in which included four ‘three and out’ possessions in the first half, Jones completed 17 of his 21 passes in the second half for 225 yards and 4 of his TDs. Jones seems to have the poise in the pocket and touch on his passes that Piland seems to lack. Another problem with the Cougars offense this season (which ranks fourth in the conference in averaging 31.7 points per game and second in passing at 326 yards per), is the rushing game, or lack thereof, as they only average 144.8 yards per game (seventh in the conference and 81st nationally).

 

Fortunately for the Cougars, as bad as Tulane is in running the ball on offense, they are just as bad at stopping it defensively, allowing opponents to rush for 223 yards per game (last in the conference and 117th nationally) and an amazing 28 TDs (116th nationally) under first year co-coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington . With Sims likely out due to an ankle injury he suffered three games ago at East Carolina (though he tried to come back last week to only last the first two series), the run game will be in the capable hands of Kenneth Farrow. While Sims is by far and away the best pure rusher on the team, Farrow is the best power back, even though he weighs more than five pounds lighter than Sims (212 to 205). Farrow carried the rock 14 times for 78 yards last week at Marshall and for the season is averaging 5 yards per carry (385 yards on 77 carries with 2 TDs). Bush must establish Farrow early and often against a light Tulane defensive line that averages only 267 pounds across its front four, led by senior defensive end Austen Jacks. The 6’3, 238 pounder has started 36 straight games and leads the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (4.5). The other end is true freshman Aaron Bryant (246 pounds), who has only 18 tackles with one sack. Fellow true freshman Royce LaFrance (239 pounds) started for Bryant last week with true freshman Corey Redwine (294 pounds) moving from reserve nose tackle to starting at defensive tackle for injured junior Julius Warmsley (271 pounds). Sophomore Kenny Welcome and his 290 pounds rounds out the line at the nose. Redwine, Warmsley and Welcome have combined for only four tackles per loss amongst them all. Three true freshman and one sophomore combined with the light weight up front should allow the Cougars to dominate the Green Wave (in theory anyway). Unfortunately for the Coogs, they are having their own injury issues up front. Starting right tackle Ralph Oragwu has been ruled out for Saturday’s game and right guard Jacolby Ashworth will be a game time decision. If the right side of the line is out, look for junior DeAnthony Sims to start for Oragwu and Kevin Forsch to move over from his center slot to right guard. Redshirt Sophomore Bryce Redman would replace Forsch at center in this scenario. Sims started last week for Ashworth while Redman has started seven games in splitting time with Forsch over the course of the season. The Green Wave are also light at linebacker as their heaviest is SLB, Darryl Farley (at 227 pounds). The senior has 50 tackles along with a sack on the season. Their leading tackler at linebacker is MLB, Zach Davis (6’0, 214) whom has 78 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception. At the weakside backer spot is 203 pound sophomore Matt Bailey who has 27 tackles with one pick on the season.

 

If the Cougars can hold their blocks and establish their running game, Jones should be able to pick apart the Green Wave’s young secondary, as they allow teams to pass for nearly 250 yards which ranks 8th in the conference and 83rd nationally. The injury bug has hit the Cougars receiving core as well as both slot receivers Shane Ros and Daniel Spencer have been ruled out for this game. While Spencer has dropped his fair share of balls this season, he still leads the team in receiving yards with 584 (on 41 receptions with 3 TDs) and Ros (337, 23, 3) was sure handed, especially on the quick inside slant over the middle. Larry McDuffy (382, 28, 4) and Ronnie Williams (197, 23, 1) will have to pick up the slack inside with Deontay Greenberry (472, 44, 2), Xavier Maxwell (130, 8, 2), Dewayne Peace (502, 47, 2), and Mark Roberts (119, 9, 1) doing the heavy lifting on the outside.

 

Responsible for handling this diverse set of Cougars receivers will be a Tulane secondary that fields four underclassmen (three true freshman and one sophomore), led by senior corner back Ryan Travis, whom has started 36 straight games over his four seasons. Travis is a lot like the Cougars D.J. Hayden in that he’s able to help out in the run game as he has the innate ability to read and react to his block, shed it and make the tackle - in which he has accumulated 49 on the season, including 3.5 for loss along with 9 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 1 sack and fumble recovery. Behind Travis at corner are two freshmanJordan Batiste and Lorenzo Doss. Batiste, who at only 5’8, has produced 42 tackles with 1 interception and 1 fumble recovery. It’s Doss however, who’s taking the secondary by storm as he leads the team with 4 interceptions. At free safety, another true freshman, Darion Monroe, has also impressed although he’s totally new to the position (he was a QB at East St. John High School in New Orleans). He leads the team with 89 tackles and 3 fumble recoveries, one which he returned 54 yards for a TD at Memphis two weeks ago. Senior Shakiel Smith (42 tackles, 1 interception and fumble recovery) and sophomore Sam Scofield (32 tackles and 2 interceptions) have split time at strong safety although Scofield was held out last week after suffering a concussion two weeks ago at Memphis.

 

On special teams, two of the better kickers in the nation will be on display in the Cougars Matt Hogan (16 of 21 field goals this season and 55 of 67 for his career) and the Green Wave’s Cario Santos. The Lou Groza award finalist has nailed all 20 of his field goal attempts so far this season and is 24 of 25 on PAT’s, with only his first attempt of the season being blocked (for you non math majors that’s 44 kicks in a row he’s made). On the other side of those spectacular numbers are both teams’ kickoff return averages, which are 19.5 for the Coogs and 18.9 for Tulane – which rank 11th and 12th in the conference. Cougars punter Richie Leone must continue his superb punting (his 45.6 yards has him ranked 7th in the nation) as Tulane has decided to give both the kickoff and punt return job to the all-around weapon in the true freshman Monroe (at least according to their latest depth chart).

 

The Cougars have 24 seniors graduating, among them – Hayden, Ashworth, Hogan, Jones and one of my favorite, Steward. The linebacker from Missouri City Hightower relived his most special memory of the Rob during Tuesday’s media press conference, "The special memory I have is when we played Texas Tech (a 29-28 win in 2009 shown nationally on ESPN) and everybody rushed the field after we won. I've never seen it like that. I was fresh out of high school and seeing that is something I will always remember." Let’s hope this game will be another memory for these seniors as the Coogs look to finish this disappointing season strong. In the upcoming weeks and months I’ll have a tribute article on Robertson Stadium along with ‘State of the Cougars’ articles on the offense and defense as well.