Keys to the Game, Revisited - UH Edition

The crowd was raucous from the beginning, and without a cell phone, I would have never found the tailgate party I was looking for - it was that crowded around the stadium.  A great game atmosphere.  I spent 8 years in Houston before moving to DFW.  A coworker in my company's Houston office was able to purchase extra tickets as part of his season package to University of Houston games, which he offered to me before the season. 

In talking with U of H fans before, during, and after the game, many thought they were over matched on Saturday.  And with the exception of the guy who spilled his beer down my wife's back and one slightly obnoxious drunk guy in the row behind us, they were a hospitable crowd.  Tip 'o the hat to the U of H fans for being gracious hosts, and kudos to their team for never giving up despite trailing most of the game.  This is the reason why we watch college football.

I will never understand why cougars only have 3 fingers. 

After losing for the second week in a row, my newest black Texas Tech T-shirt is officially retired from game day wear.  Perhaps for this and myriad other reasons, this was a game about missed opportunity.   As I sat in the stands Saturday, sweating (literally) out the last few minutes of the game, I couldn't help but think that, should Houston score, we didn't have the play makers for a last second comeback.  But this game did not come down to one play or one series.  Though we were up at the half, the signs of the bad loss (this one definitely qualifies) littered Tech's play throughout the game.  Here are my thoughts on the game as seen from the stands and a look at the Keys to the Game from last week.

I don't know how it was on TV, but watching the game in person was agonizingly frustrating. I had great seats for viewing the game (50 yard line, about a third of the way up).  Which is good because in the rush to get down to Houston last week, I forgot to set my DVR.  This may be a blessing in disguise, as I'm not sure I could stomach watching that game again.

On offense we did not capitalize on opportunities provided by key stops by the defense, missed field goals and penalties against U of H that kept us alive and in striking distance.  For the second game in a row, Edward Britton made his presence known through a personal foul after the play.  It occurred on the far side of the field from me, so I couldn't see what happened, but anything that happens after the play is absolutely, 100% uncalled for.  I think this is why Britton became the decoy for the rest of the night and never saw Taylor Potts look his direction.  Some additional disciplinary action is in order, IMO. 

On defense, we seemed out of sorts.  The Cougars game play was to run a hurry-up offense.  At one point it seemed they were getting plays off every 15-20 seconds.  Our defense was caught several times not lined up and out of position, or still trying to make substitutions.  I asked Ruff to prove me wrong this week, but I came away disappointed in our scheme and play calling.  Continually trying to substitute against the hurry-up offense was unnecessary.  The epic TV timeouts and moving of the chains allowed a substitution relatively frequently.  I do not understand trying to substitute on 2nd and 3rd down when we are not changing the scheme (e.g. changing from 4-3 to nickle) when in 1 or 2 plays they would either be moving the chains or punting.  Were it not for some phenomenal efforts by guys like Colby Whitlock (I swear he single-handedly stopped a play in which NO ONE else was lined up when Houston snapped the ball), Tech would have been in a huge hole.

Offensive Keys

Key #1 - Hold on to the ball.   -1 turnover margin. Again.  And yet again, this is good for a seven point swing.  2 fumbles lost - one on the first series of the game, and had it not been for a hands to the face penalty (that I missed), there would have been an INT as well.  Not to mention at least one other dropped interception and a fumble that we recovered ourselves.  We definitely missed on this one again.  Eric Stephens fumble was the result of the risk you take in continuing to go hard after the first hit.  Sometimes, you break free or pick up a few extra yards.  Sometimes you get stripped of the ball as multiple defenders start trying to bring you down.  I'll take the effort.  As he gains experience at this level, he'll learn to protect the ball more when he is in trouble.  The first fumble was a group effort - poor protection by the line, who seemed to still be asleep, and Taylor Potts's statuesque form in the pocket.  I am glad he is showing patience and trust in his o-line, but it is OK to step up in the pocket and scramble to buy time on occasion.  The offensive line continues to struggle against pressure on the edge.

Key #2 - Run.  The.  Ball. Our running game seemed to find it's legs in this game.  With the exception of the goal line stand in the 4th, U of H had nothing to contain Baron Batch, Eric Stephens and Harrison Jeffers, who had 28 combined touches and averaged 6.8 yds/carry.  How could is 6.8 yds/carry?  Consider that the passing game only netted 7.1 yds/attempt.  I like that the staff is getting Jeffers involved.  We need to get our best athletes on the field and making plays in any way we can.  I understand not lining him up in the backfield alot when we need pass protection, but the reverse option with Jeffers in motion set up least 3 different plays (hand off to Jeffers, Hand off to Batch/Stephens, play action pass) that keeps the defense frozen and could open up some big play opportunities.  i was very pleased with our running effort and don't fault Leach for going for the TD.  The U of H defensive front was whipped by that point.  A TD would have sealed the game and stolen all momentum.  Give credit where it's due - U of H made a gutsy stop on defense.  I also expect that we witnessed the death of the jumbo set for this season.  It has not been effective for us.

Key #3 - No time off.  After the first series, the line seemed to wake up and we had some decent run blocking, though as we know U of H is not the strongest team against the run.  The success of the second series seemed to lull the offense back to sleep, as we allowed a sack/intentional grounding in the third series.  We had a number of dropped passes (starting in the 4th series), and a couple of plays where Potts threw the ball away and for the first time I saw him visabley frustrated.  It seemed as if the receivers just didn't want to make the play or were thinking about the run instead of catching the ball first.  I actually commented at one point that they were playing as if the ball was wet.  The offense still lacks cohesion.  I hope that the events of this week and what should be an easy home game will help things to gel, but I am skeptical.

Defense

Key #1 - Limit YAC. Houston had 4 receivers who averaged over 10 yards a catch and each of them caught at least 8 passes.  Tyrone Carrier was continually open over the middle and had lots of running room.  We continued to play very soft at corner most of the game.  Cody Davis had what would have been a great break-up, but a penalty against U of H made it moot.  Unfortunately, that was the only one of note, but it is good to see the athleticism in the secondary start to come through.  The only reason Keenum managed to complete only 65% was a number of drops and some overthrown balls to wide open receivers. We continued to play soft coverage, even when we desparately needed a stop at the ed of the game, and U of H took advantage.

Key #2 - Force Case Keenum to hold the ball more than 3 seconds.  When this happened, Houston floundered.  It was not until late in the game that Keenum was able to do any damage with his feet.  In generaly, though, Keenum had no trouble finding the open man.  Again, very disappointing. See soft coverage above.

Key #3 - Avoid the let down.  From the player's perspective, i think Tech did a good job of this until U of H's last drive.  Will Ford had a nice pick in which he ripped the ball from the receiver on the ensuing drive after Tech failed to convert the 4th and 1 into a TD, with Houston marching down the field.   4 plays later, in which we failed to run the ball despite our success earlier in the game, the defense was back out on the field and Houston methodically moved the ball 95 yards down the field, with the help of 2 3rd down conversions and a 4th down conversion.  Throughout the game, I thought we were hamstrung a bit trying to give the game to them by poor substitution and vanilla defense.  For the most part, the players showed a will to win and played hard.  I really like this group.  McNeill needs to show some trust and unleash them to make plays.

Special Teams

Make them drive the field.  This one was 50/50.  Our punt coverage was great.  Our kick-off coverage stinks worse than the Lubbock stock yards on a hot summer day.  Seriously.  I also want to give some props to Austin Zouzalik for dropping the hammer in blocking for Stephens on kick returns.  Stephens gets the glory, but Zouzalik deserves a ton of credit for allowing him to get past the first man repeatedly. 

Overall, the running game was the bright spot and gives me hope going forward.  It seems that this is still a team trying to find itself and establish roles.  Over the next couple of weeks, I expect that the playmakers will start to emerge and things will start to fall into place.  I am not ready to start talking about "next year" yet.

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