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‘It all starts from the point of attack’: Dana Holgorsen says key to UH’s defense has been D-line

UH senior defensive lineman Payton Turner (98) with a big hit on a BYU offensive player. Head coach Dana Holgorsen said Turner's unit has been key to the Cougars' defense. | Courtesy of UH athletics

UH senior defensive lineman Payton Turner (98) with a big hit on a BYU offensive player. Head coach Dana Holgorsen said Turner’s unit has been key to the Cougars’ defense. | Courtesy of UH athletics

Throughout Houston’s first three games this season, the unit that has been the most consistent has been the defense, which is the third-best unit in the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards allowed to opposing teams per game and first in the conference against the run.

UH’s rankings are more impressive when looking at its first three opponents. Houston has played against the first-ranked rushing offense in the AAC in Tulane and against the 27th rushing offense in the country in BYU.

“Believe it or not, we actually like it when teams pass it,” UH senior defensive lineman Payton Turner told reporters on Saturday following another strong outing by the defense against Navy, which is known for its triple-option offense that revolves around the run. “We take that personal.”

While the Cougars’ biggest goal is to make opposing teams one dimensional, the strong play by the defense in the first three games has been more impressive considering it was towards the bottom of every category in 2019.

Houston was 11th in the AAC in total defense a season ago behind only UConn. UH’s defense against the run was not much better as it was 10th in the conference. The unit allowed opponents to rush for over 200 yards a game. 

Fast forward to 2020 and the Cougars are allowing only 104.7 per game, and it could have been lower had it not been for the Midshipmen’s final drive in Saturday’s game.

“(Turner) is right,” head coach Dana Holgorsen told reporters on Monday. “They take it personal (to stop opposing teams’ running attacks). We’ve done a great job of stopping the run, and it’s going to be another big one this week. UCF poses a ton of different challenges.”

While Houston will be challenged again when it meets the No. 1 offense in the conference, which also has the third-best rushing attack in the AAC, the Cougars now have the confidence that they can slow the Knights and give them headaches, which was not the case in 2019.

“I think we’ve come a really far way,” Turner said. “The values were there last year, but the performance on the players-end wasn’t there. I think that’s what has changed this year. We have players that are ready to play, and coaches are getting us ready every week and playing hard. We’re playing harder than we did last year, I think that is the biggest difference.”

When talking about the specifics in improvement that his defense has made, Holgorsen gave a lot of credit to Turner.

“Payton Turner just continues being the biggest presence that we have on our defense,” he said. “He’s a team captain… He’s kind of been the ring leader of that front.” 

When it comes to the entire unit, Holgorsen said that the key to his team’s success in stopping the run has been due to his defensive assistant coaches, especially Joe Cauthen and Brian Early, who the head coach said obsess over stopping that facet of the game for opponents, which has trickled down to the players.

Another key for the defense has been the entire defensive line, which has had multiple players step-up and create havoc in opponents’ backfields.

“I’ll tell you, especially against Navy, it all starts from the point of attack,” Holgorsen said. “Logan Hall was our defensive payer of the week. (Chidozie Nwankwo) was a force even though it was only his third game played. He’s a force now. He moved the line of scrimmage himself.”

Because the defensive line for the Cougars has been able to make strong pushes against opposing teams, it has also allowed everyone else on the unit to have more space to attack and react.

Holgorsen specifically named senior linebacker Grant Stuard and junior linebacker Donavan Mutin as two players who have benefitted the most and been able to roam and make a ton of tackles because of the defensive line’s performance.

While UCF will be another strong test for that unit, Houston’s defense knows what it’s about. It has an identity.

“We are fast,” Stuard said on Saturday. “We are sound, and we are just really aggressive. We play every single play. Every single quarter… It is a grind, and once you get about half-way through the third quarter, it becomes (like) practice.”

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