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Sunday, December 10, 2023


Defense carries Cougars to two straight victories


The Cougars’ star defensive tackle, Ed Oliver (10), celebrates after a big hit against the Rice Owls. Oliver added 6 tackles and another forced fumble to his stats in the Cougars’ 38-3 victory. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

The Cougars’ defense once again showed why it was predicted to carry the team after dominating the Rice Owls in a 38-3 victory Saturday night.

Defender after defender showed up during the victory against the Owls, creating chaos all over the field for the offense, which only managed to score three points. From senior linebacker Matthew Adams to true freshman Payton Turner, every level of the defense was locked in. Head coach Major Applewhite put a special emphasis on defense in practice this week after watching tape on the Owls.

“They did practice well Tuesday and Wednesday. Rice’s offense got our defense’s attention,” Applewhite said. “They saw all the complicated things they do, and it got their attention. I texted Matthew Adams and Garrett Davis on Monday and said, ‘Have you watched this? This is some really good stuff.’ They knew Monday afternoon that we had to have our eyes right.”

Adams led the Cougars with 11 tackles, just one shy of his career best, and added one pass breakup to his stats against the Owls. The senior linebacker was on fire until the Cougars pulled the starters in the beginning of the third quarter.

Caution and accountability

The Cougars have started with leads early in both their victories this season, but Applewhite is still cautious —eventually, they will trail an opponent this season.

“We have to challenge ourselves, be humble in our approach and realize we’ve been playing with leads, and that at some point we’ll play with a deficit,” Applewhite said. “We have to get ready for a great team that can score a lot of points. We have a lot to improve on.”

Sophomore Ed Oliver continued his All-American campaign by notching six tackles and yet another forced fumble onto his young resume. Senior captain Garrett Davis also showed up big on the stat sheet for the second week in a row, adding to the overall effort of the defense.

Davis was named team captain right before the season began and has been trying to motivate his teammates anyway he can. He even talks smack — when necessary — to the other safeties on the team.

“We hold each other accountable, especially in the safety room,” Davis said. “I, for one, talk a lot of junk to my co-safety Terrell (Williams). Just to pump each other up and get each other ready for practice. I tell him, you know, ‘Hey, you ain’t going to ball harder than me.’ Just something small to get him going.”

Fresh potential

In week one, the defense saved the team from a narrow loss to the Arizona Wildcats when the offense failed to get going. Although the Wildcats came within three points of the Cougars in the fourth quarter, the defense stopped their momentum and ensured a Cougar victory in Arizona.

That defensive performance is becoming a staple for a young Cougar team that has seen a lot of new faces in its coaching staff. New defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has whipped the team into shape this off-season and has them performing on a high level.

“I’m very proud, because every time we walk out on the field I can feel the edge that we took the field with,” Adams said. “We were ready to get off three-and-out every time. Even though the score was 38-0, we came out there like it was 0-0 and were trying to get off the field for the offense to get back on.”

The biggest performance of the night did not come from a familiar face or established veteran.

True freshman Payton Turner lit up the stat sheet with one interception and one sack in the limited playing time he was given. Although he burst on the scene, it still took a lot of practice to come this far for the young freshman.

“We were on him all summer and fall camp about learning the defense,” Applewhite said. “He has the length and flexibility. He must develop the strength and put on the weight. He’s a good young man from a good family. We’re 98 percent of the way there.”

Although the offense had a great game against Rice and finally showed some of Applewhite’s magic from last year, defense is proving to be king in Houston after two straight dominant performances.

“I’m excited about our win and excited to keep the Bayou Bucket,” Applewhite said. “I’m very proud of the way our guys came out ready to play. They are good people, and it meant a lot to them to play for their city.

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