Offensive versatility should render success
Before UH’s 47-0 shutout of Grambling State, I wanted to see how the offense would respond against a team it should have relative ease winning against. It turned the ball over six times and recorded a mere 208 yards in the 27-7 loss to UTSA in the season opener.
For most, the score at TDECU Stadium on Saturday night will imply one thing — the high-octane offense is back — but the play on the field warrants another.
My gut tells me UH posted more than 475 yards and scored four touchdowns that lasted a combined two minutes and 45 seconds, with each of those scoring drives taking no more than three plays. Impressive, right? My head counters:
The quick touchdown strikes were great. But overall, I wasn’t satisfied that UH couldn’t build rhythm and sustain drives against a team it was favored heavily against. The rapid scoring rate worked as its bread and butter against GSU, but don’t count on it to be the solution the rest of the season. The tougher opponents on the schedule — like No. 25 BYU this Thursday night on ESPN — are more disciplined, faster and more athletic and won’t allow as many explosive plays.
On the first team offense’s other eight possessions, UH lost two fumbles, punted twice and had to settle for four field goals due to dropped passes. I counted two uncharacteristic ones from junior receiver Deontay Greenberry, including one that should have been a touchdown. I also noticed overthrown balls from sophomore quarterback John O’Korn, including one that senior receiver Daniel Spencer was wide open in the end zone, and two penalties early in the second quarter that stalled a drive which began 1st-and-goal from the Grambling State 5-yard line.
The best drive of the night was one where the offense didn’t score. Junior running back Kenneth Farrow lost a fumble at the GSU 2-yard line to end a 7-play, 98-yard drive. It lasted two minutes and 53 seconds and alternated between four runs and three good intermediate passes from O’Korn.
I also saw O’Korn make a couple of not-so-good decisions.
Twice on third down, he threw into double coverage while being pressured; instead, he should have thrown the ball away. Nonetheless, from throwing four interceptions in the home opener to 12-25 for 200 yards and a touchdown is a sign of progression.
“I thought he was more confident with his throws,” said head coach Tony Levine. “He’ll come in tomorrow and say, ‘I missed this throw, and I missed that throw. I had a poor read.’ He is his own biggest critic.”
Several times in the first half, sophomore Greg Ward’s presence in the backfield along with O’Korn and Spencer constantly had the Tigers on their heels. Ward — who Levine has called one of the best athletes in the program — finished with five carries for 25 yards and a touchdown from the shotgun formation. The former high school quarterback also serves as the starting outside receiver and punt returner.
“I think it is something we’re going to see week in and week out,” Levine said of Ward playing in the backfield. “It’s a change of pace, and it gives opponents something else to think about. I think it could give us a spark as well, and whether we do it six times or 20 times, an opponent is going to have to prepare for that.”
The scheme should help O’Korn. The reigning American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year has recently gone from the gun-slinger who led all true freshmen nationally with 28 touchdown throws to just barely completing better than 50 percent of his passes in three of the last five games, dating back to last season.
Making the game easier for O’Korn
Do you realize that the Cougars are just 1-4 with O’Korn as a starter when he has more than 40 passing attempts, and is 6-2 when he throws for less?
With the 19-year-old under center, I believe O’Korn — whose offense returned 94 percent of its yardage — can still contend for the AAC championship, but he needs help. Not everyone is Case Keenum or Kevin Kolb. Most pundits have gotten spoiled and think the next Cougars’ starting quarterback has to be the next to put up video-game numbers.
O’Korn personally told me in April he doesn’t even dare to put himself in that category, nor does he need to in order to have success. He has enough tools around him to make the offense more efficient.
The team has changed
The Cougars have a solid duo of backs in juniors Farrow, who can move the chains on short yardage, and Ryan Jackson, who can race to the end zone from anywhere on the field. It is a luxury a Cougar offense hasn’t had in recent memory.
“We have to take some pressure off (O’Korn),” said Farrow, who rushed for a career-high 133 yards in the win. “He’s still young, and he’s making a lot of progress year-to-year. It makes his job a lot easier if we can get 50 and 60-yard runs. It allows us to get into rhythm.”
Most importantly, the team has a defense that has not only shown they can take the ball away — it led last season with 43 forced turnovers — but one that carry the team for victory, as it did so many times last season.