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Friday, September 29, 2023


COMMENTARY: UH offense in need of variety

After returning from a disappointing trip to Greenville, N.C. that ended with a 38-32 loss to East Carolina in the Conference USA championship game, the Cougars are left to wonder what could have been. There will certainly be several moments UH players wish they could have back – whether it be a poorly timed pass, missed kicks, blown assignments or missed tackles.

But what the coaching staff may regret the most is not utilizing a consistent running game throughout the season.’

Maybe it’s because head coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, the architects of UH’s high-powered, quick-strike aerial attack, believed they didn’t have the personnel to implement a traditional, down-hill style running game.’

Maybe they were so confident in quarterback Case Keenum and his stable of speedy receivers that they figured ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Or maybe it was because the running game was an effective and available side note early in the year, and the coaching staff believed it would always be there, a natural byproduct of the explosive passing game. ‘

Either way, in a sport where adjustments affect a game’s outcome as much as speed or key blocks, opposing defenses are starting to figure out how to slow, and sometimes stop, UH’s once feared approach on offense.’

Look past the stats

Some will wonder how anyone can come away with that opinion after watching Keenum complete 56 of 75 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns. But if you look at the types of throws Keenum was making, it becomes apparent that they were exactly what ECU wanted to give him.

Truth be told, the Cougars should have seen this type of game coming, given ECU head coach Skip Holtz’s comments leading up to the C-USA championship game. While being respectful of UH running backs Bryce Beall and Charles Sims, Holtz indicated that priority No. 1 would be to contain UH’s passing game because of the Cougars’ unwillingness to establish a running game.’

‘Houston doesn’t have any designed run plays, but Keenum is extremely athletic to get away from the rush,’ Holtz said. ‘Their offensive line is very athletic. They’re only asked to do three things: kick step for pass protection, which is what they do about 80 percent of the time, run the zone play and pull for screens. They run a lot of screens to get the ball to their athletes in a hurry.’

While Sumlin and his staff have often cited the quick, short passing game as essentially being UH’s running game, it cannot serve as a complete replacement. At the same time, the UH coaching staff should not abandon its current philosophy of utilizing its speedy receivers and most dangerous weapon in Keenum. Clearly, what is needed is a degree of balance.

Even more telling may be Holtz’s comments on UH’s offensive philosophy, and the coaching staff’s unwavering dedication to the passing game.

‘Houston is only going to line up in a couple formations,’ Holtz said. ‘I don’t think Houston ever sits down and watches opponents’ game film. Houston can go out and run its offense on air. They do what they do.’

On the surface, that may sound like a compliment from Holtz, but at the same time it could reflect the perception other coaches have about UH’s offense. What is clear is that praise aside, a trend has been identified, and that is the first step towards neutralization in a sport where reaction and adjustments all too often make the difference between wins and losses.

Working with what they have

Lost in all the analysis of UH’s current approach is the effect personnel has on an offensive philosophy. In 2008, the UH offensive line was anchored by tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who now helps protect New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s blind side on Sundays. Vollmer was part of an upperclassmen-heavy line that boasted three seniors, one junior and one freshman. By comparison, this year’s unit is a youthful bunch, with returning starter Carl Barnett being the only senior.’

Also, the loss of senior tight end Mark Hafner has contributed to a change in the offensive scheme, as noted by then-Memphis head coach Tommy West statements prior to the Tigers’ game against the Cougars.

‘They are going to give you four and five guys at a time,’ West said.’ ‘They never put a tight end in there. All four of them are going to be guys that can hurt you.’

The absence of a tight end who is a viable option in the passing game and a key run blocker means defenses have one less possibility to account for when assessing UH’s offensive formations. That split second of hesitation from a linebacker or safety can be the difference between a 6-yard pass and a 60-yarder.’

Sumlin is a smart coach and has probably forgotten more football than most fans will know in their lifetime. He got the UH job because he knows about adjustments and has had the success he has partly because of his ability to adjust his system to the players available. Now may come his biggest challenge: staying ahead of the adjustment curve before he has to start from scratch.’

The old adage says that variety is the spice of life, but it’s more of a preservative in football. Without it, even the best dishes grow stale.

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