The Houston Cougars have seemingly operated without a plan when on offense this season. There's been the running play. There's been a passing play and/or the QB running for his life depending on whether if the offensive line was able to make any blocks. Then there's generally been the punt on fourth and long after everything else failed.
Every now and then the defense would create a turnover, giving the offense the ball in great field position. Or there's been the timely penalty on a defensive player, giving the Cougars a first down and keeping a drive alive. And more often than not, the Cougars have had to settle for a field goal whenever getting in scoring position. The result's been lackluster play, a disappointed fan base, and the benching of quarterback John O'Korn.
The Cougars (3-3) got the 28-24 win over the Memphis Tigers (3-3) in Memphis on Saturday night. The offense, behind O'Korn's replacement, Greg Ward, Jr., showed more signs of life than it had at any time this season. The defense struggled at times -- the Tigers led 21-14 at the half. But the defense did what has become it's trademark, creating turnover after turnover -- the final fifth Memphis turnover of the night was an interception with under a minute on the clock to stop a Tiger attempt to regain the lead.
"We put our defense in a tough spot early with two turnovers," head coach Tony Levine said Saturday night. "Basically with our backs up against the wall we got down fourteen to zero. We didn't panic, ended up making some plays. We made some adjustment at half time. The thing we talked about going into this game was turnovers and against a very, very good Memphis team certainly on offense."
It was a refreshing win for the Cougars after the disheartening loss to UCF the week before. Ward, who replaced O'Korn at QB during the second half of the UCF game, made more happen on his own than O'Korn and the entire offensive unit had done all season. Ward rushed for 95 yards, including a 62-yard TD for the team's first points of the night.
"He has a great ability to extend plays," Levine said of Ward. So the coaching staff designed some plays to specifically take advantage of that ability. Some of his best plays of the night, according to Levine, were actually designed to be passing plays, but because of pressure or because of the defensive coverage on his receivers, Ward took off running instead. But all was not well with the offense. Ward threw for only 168 yards while going 14-for-25 with an interception and a touchdown pass. Memphis out-gained the Cougars, ran more plays, and converted more first downs. And except for those designed runs for Ward, the running game was pretty much non-existent (Kenneth Farrow gained 64 yards on 10 rushes from the running back position, but it was like he was forgotten for large parts of the night).
The Cougars started out in August trying to figure out more ways to get Ward out on the field. He was moved from defensive back to quarterback before the start of last season. Then he became O'Korn's backup and saw action as a change-of-pace quarterback. But he was so explosive that it was decided during the season to also start playing him at wide receiver and as a punt returner. The offense, under coordinator Doug Meacham, fired on all cylinders for most of the season, and the inability to figure out how to use Ward didn't really seem to matter that much.
But that ad-hoc approach to offensive planning hasn't really worked this season. Part of that is undoubtedly due to O'Korn's struggles at quarterback. But coordinator Meacham left for TCU in the off-season and his replacement, Travis Bush, hasn't been able to figure out if the Cougars are a pass-first team, a run-first team, or some kind of hybrid and the result has been stalled drive after stalled drive. O'Korn's gotten a lot of the blame, but this is the same O'Korn that was last year's American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. This year his offensive line has more often resembled a sieve than it has a cohesive blocking unit, and the receivers have dropped balls on the few occasions when O'Korn's passes were on target.
The Cougars return to action at 8:00 when they host the Temple Owls (a surprising 4-1 on the season). That's a few more days for the offense to develop a legit game plan instead of waiting until halftime to make some adjustments to what the defense is doing. The good news is the offense responded to Ward, and hopefully his spark is something that will carry over for the rest of the season.
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