FOOTBALL: Cougars look to slow Southern Miss
With seven games under their belts, the Associated Press No. 15 Cougars know most of their strengths and weaknesses.
One of those weaknesses ‘- their run defense ‘- will be put to the test when they take on Southern Miss at noon Saturday. Head coach Kevin Sumlin knows the Golden Eagles’ powerful rushing attack will be tough to contain, but he appears confident that his young defense will take advantage of its opportunities.
‘(Southern Miss’) Damion Fletcher is one of the better running backs in the country,’ Sumlin said. ‘We have been playing a lot of young guys in the defensive front. When you’re young on defense, it’s important to be opportunistic, meaning getting off the field on third down and creating turnovers. That’s what we did last week.’
UH (6-1, 2-1 Conference USA) forced three fumbles and did not allow SMU to convert one third-down attempt (0-for-10) during last weekend’s 38-15 win. The Cougars may need a similar effort Saturday at Robertson Stadium to top Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1 C-USA), which has rushed for more than 200 yards on four occasions this season.
The Golden Eagles’ ground attack is led by Fletcher, who will try to exploit a UH defense that is allowing 219 rushing yards per game this season. The senior’s 4,885 career rushing yards rank second all-time in C-USA and first among active NCAA FBS running backs.
Defensive tackle David Hunter believes penetrating Southern Miss’ offensive line is one of the keys to slowing Fletcher.
‘They have a very good offensive line. That’s why their running backs put up good numbers and good yards,’ Hunter said. ‘We have to start preparing today, and if everyone prepares like they should and we’re mentally and physically ready (to face their offensive line), it should be a good game.’
The Golden Eagles also sport one of C-USA’s most talented athletes in DeAndre Brown. The 6-6 wide receiver, who is averaging 62.7 receiving yards per game this season, is at least four inches taller than most members of the Cougars’ secondary.
Brown’s size advantage allows him to catch balls that would be out of the reach of shorter receivers. This prevents the Cougars from focusing solely on Fletcher, and it could force them into a somewhat conservative game plan.
‘DeAndre Brown was one of the top recruited receivers in the country last year,’ Sumlin said. ‘He’s a guy who, even though (defensive backs) are there for coverage, can still make a play.’
The combination of Brown and Fletcher should generate several scoring opportunities for the Golden Eagles, but UH will attempt to counter with its increasingly balanced offense. After his team rushed for a season-high 161 yards against SMU, Sumlin said offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen has been looking to utilize his talented backfield.
‘It’s not like we haven’t run the ball since I’ve been here, we’re just running it more now,’ Sumlin said. ‘(Our running backs) are good players, and we need to get them on the field.’
Running back Bryce Beall rushed for 1,247 yards last season, but his body took thousands of hits in the process. This year he is sharing the load with freshman Charles Sims, who rushed for a career-high 105 yards against SMU, in an effort to keep both players fresh.
Sumlin said rotating between multiple rushers to cut down on injuries is becoming the norm at most schools, including Southern Miss and UH.
‘The day that the running back has become the workhorse has become very limited because of the length of games and the number of hits,’ Sumlin said. ‘When we recruit players, we tell them, ‘you could go there and carry the ball 30 or 40 times a game, but what you have to think about is that a running back will get hit between three to five times every time he carries the ball.’ That adds up.’
Despite the increased focus on the running game, Sumlin said quarterback Case Keenum will still throw the ball a lot.
The Golden Eagles’ defense has been solid against opposing aerial attacks this season, allowing 225.8 passing yards per game. This unit also has enough talent to put pressure on Keenum and flush him out of his comfort zone.
Keenum and his teammates have become more popular in 2009, averaging slightly more than 27,000 fans per home game. In 2008, UH’s average attendance was approximately 21,500.
Brandon Brinkley said this is an ‘encouraging’ trend that gives the team extra energy.
‘Now we know we have the whole city behind our backs,’ Brinkley said. ‘It feels good to have support like that.’