Thursday was tough to stomach. An ending that no one expected went the wrong way for the Houston Cougars, and fans seemed ready to give up on the team after the final drive. Let’s pump the brakes on that kind of nonsense. Remember, there will be bumps along the road. Some clearly more frustrating than others. Houston’s defense still has flaws to work on, but let’s dive deep into what happened Thursday.
This remains the biggest issue for Houston defensively. Tackles for loss, turnovers, and plays that make an impact on a drive are tough to come by for the Cougars. We saw a handful of them in the first half, but not many in the second. What can a disruptive play do for Houston? We saw it in the first half.
Deontay Anderson destroyed Jalen McCleskey with this hit, the ball came losse, and Zamar Kirven picks it up. Houston takes the ball inside Tulane territory and scores to go up 28-7. Unfortunately for the Cougars, there weren’t many plays like this in the second half, and the Green Wave capitalized on it. Disruptive plays and pressure go together, and Houston hasn’t done well at either yet.
This goes around the entire defense. Houston’s discipline has gotten better, but still needs work. Gap discipline up front hurt Houston in key moments.
Here, I don’t know who has which gap, but Derek Parish and Donavan Mutin both go inside, leaving the outside gap vacant. That allows McMillan to take the ball outside and pick up the first down.
If one of them goes in and the other goes out, it’s 3rd and 12 from Tulane’s one yard line instead of first down. It may be a minor issue in one play, but it leads to larger problems in the big picture.
One thing Houston’s secondary did well in the first three games was keep the ball in front of them. Teams were able to gain good chunks at a time, but couldn’t beat the Cougars deep. Tulane found a number of ways to do both on Thursday. First, there was this deep ball in which Jalen McCleskey beats both Gervarrius Owens and Gleson Sprewell deep. Now, McCleskey’s a burner, but Sprewell needs to help Owens out better here, and Owens needs to work on attacking the ball better.
Owens had a tough night against McCleskey and Darnell Mooney, as we saw with this catch later in the game.
So far, I’ve been unimpressed with Owens. He started the 2019 season by running away from a ball carrier, and now has the above play and the one below.
It looks like he lost the ball in the air, but he needs to work on that if he wants to continue starting. Fortunately for him, there isn’t much pressure behind him. Mooney’s one of the best receivers in the conference, but Owens must be better. If he can’t Joe Cauthen must avoid leaving him man up on a receiver of Mooney’s caliber.
The above three observations are fundamental things the defense can work on, and were mostly negative for the Cougars. There were a couple things I wanted to point out on the positive side though, so let’s take a look at those.
Kirven plays well
With Terrance Edgeston nursing an ankle injury, Zamar Kirven got the start at linebacker with Donavan Mutin. He did well in his first full game, and made a handful of impact plays. He picked up the fumble that Deontay Anderson created, but also put himself in position to make tackles.
Here he makes a move on the offensive lineman to get around him, and makes the tackle. Kirven wasn’t the most consistent at this, but he’s young and showed his potential. Even when Edgeston comes back, we should expect to see him in the rotation.
A shutdown corner
One big things Cauthen must do in the secondary is find someone to play opposite of Damarion Williams. Williams proved why he was a JUCO All-American, and plays with a passion. Tulane respected his talent Thursday, and only made two throws to his side of the field. Williams continues to receive respect from opposing offense, but Houston must find a guy on the other side who can play well.
Defensive Line- C-: Lack of pressure hasn’t helped the secondary all year, and that continued. No clear dominant force at tackle or end.
Linebacker- B-: Mutin and Kirven took all of the snaps, and played well given they took every rep.
Defensive Back- C+: Overall not a bad effort, but a handful of plays were horrendous, including the final touchdown for Tulane.
It wasn’t pretty, and we won’t sugar coat it. Lost in all of this is Damarion Williams’ stardom thus far. He’s the best player on this defense, and more guys need to play with his energy. If Houston can continue making improvements at every level, this group can make an impact more often.