Cougars’ offense exploding in first year of new system
The Houston Cougars are now 9-0 and sit at 16th in the AP Top 25 and AP Coaches polls. But with the excitement the team is causing around town, you probably already knew that.
Much of the credit for the program’s turnaround is given to first-year head coach Tom Herman, and he deserved it. Under him, the team has made dramatic improvements in many statistical categories, and have made strides in areas that will not translate to the box score.
But offensive coordinator Major Applewhite’s influence on the Cougar offense could be one of the biggest determinants in this year’s success.
Applewhite had earlier stints as offensive coordinator at Rice University, the University of Alabama and the University of Texas before joining the UH coaching staff.
The offensive production spiked in his inaugural season at each of those universities and that trend has continued in Houston.
No matter where Applewhite has been, his offensive philosophy has remained consistent, and the mesh with Herman has been a natural because of their similar goals for the offensive attack.
“We want to be able to play with tempo (and) play fast” Applewhite said. “A lot of times that(eliminates) some one-on-one mismatches that you have. If you can play fast, then you can create confusion with the defense. Second, we want to be able to run the football and be able to take some shots down the field. Then, we can spread the field at times and allow our quarterback to improvise if things aren’t open.”
That scheme begins with the instructions of the coaching staff, but cannot be executed properly without comprehension from the players.
As quarterback, junior Greg Ward Jr. has thrived under Applewhite’s instruction this year.
As a former quarterback, Applewhite can relate to Ward, adding relevance to his teachings.
“He understands what I see out there,” Ward said. “He’s helped me with everything from the film room (to) seeing different coverages.”
The harmony between the two has translated into an offense that has hummed consistently from the beginning of the season, exactly the way Applewhite intends.
The Cougars rank 12th in the country in plays per game and the rushing attack ranks seventh nationally, earning 273 yards per game.
Ward has flourished in a system that allows him to showcase his dynamic playmaking. Ward was the lone quarterback in the country to average 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards for most of the season.
Most importantly, he can showcase his talents under Applewhite’s scheme.
“I enjoy it a lot,” Ward said. “I’m accounting for the run and the pass. That’s my style of offense and the type of player I am.”
The team ranks 10th in the nation in yards per game and eighth in points per game.
Those standings alone are impressive, but demand even more acclamation when compared to the averages of last year.
Last season, the team averaged 414 yards per game and 30 points per game; this year the offense is producing 525 yards per game and 44 points per game.
To have that upswing in production in one year with nearly the same roster validates the influence of Applewhite.
Other than the glaring distinctions in the box scores between this year and last year, Applewhite points to specific trends that have guided their offensive resurgence.
“Ball security and turnover margin,” Applewhite said. “Right now, knock on wood, we’re No. 1 in the country in turnover margin. That means we’re getting turnovers, and we’re taking care of the ball. That’s been the biggest change in this year.”
This week, Applewhite and Herman will have their most difficult test when the 25th ranked University of Memphis Tigers.
Memphis has its own high-octane offense, led by Paxton Lynch, who both coaches respect and who Herman described as a guy who “will play on Sundays.”
“He’s a beast,” Herman said. “A guy that’s 6 foot 7 inches and 200 and whatever pounds is not supposed to be able to move like he does. Then he has a cannon for an arm and runs that system really well. It’ll be a challenge.”
Meanwhile, Applewhite is approaching this week like any other and is only worried about putting points on the board.
“Each and every week we look at what the defense presents,” Applewhite said. “How do we have to change and tweak what we’re doing? We just change week-to-week based on what the defensive structure is. We don’t do anything different based on the opposing offense.”