Welcome back to another edition of Anatomy of a Drive, this week we look at Houston's game-winning touchdown series at South Florida last week. Our working title is "Hey look; we just stepped into a comeback."
How do you define luck? We like to think of it as a series of non-connected events thrown into a blender that yields a favorable result. No one is lucky. Anyone who says they are is just as apt to have this cosmic concoction yield something awful. We're all just waiting to see what the blender spits out. Sometimes it's a fruit smoothy; sometimes it's Mountain Dew Dewitos. Look it up; it's a thing.
Houston found their way into a bit of luck on Saturday afternoon. The Cougars trailed 17th ranked 24-21 with 1:46 to play. The Cougars spent the second half matching Bull's scores, unable to take the lead. Now they've got under two minutes to either extend the game with a field goal or win it with a touchdown.
There's one more thing, the Cougars have cycled through three quarterbacks, transfer Kyle Allen, senior soldier Kyle Postma, and now the dual-threat converted receiver D'Eriq King. Against USF, making good on his word, Major Applewhite let King have the keys to Houston's offense. King played for an up an coming Texas High school program near the coast, Manvel. Everyone recruited King out of his school; not everyone recruited him at quarterback. Tom Herman promised to give King a chance to play quarterback, something King did very well at Manvel. If King were two inches taller, there isn't a school in the country that wouldn't have tripped over themselves to let him play quarterback.
After two straight losses, Applewhite, out of desperation, decided to let King have a crack at quarterback. Now they're 58 minutes into a road game against a top twenty opponent, and the Cougars need their converted wide receiver to execute a two-minute drill. Their gonna need a little luck.
If you've read this column before, you know that the most critical play is often the first one. Can you get your team into a team minute mode, can you get the car out of neutral and into drive? Houston gets a great return to midfield, so they're in business until the Coogs take fourteen yards in sacks and throw an incompletion, now it's fourth and 24.
Major Applewhite correctly stated that there is not play for fourth and 24 in the playbook, speaking of needing a little luck. Applewhite decided to see what the mythical blender spit out, for Cougar fans it was a fruit smoothie.
4th and 24, Houston 37, 1:04 to play, no timeouts, clock stopped.
Applewhite ran a pretty simple play, three verticals to the field side and a slant to the field side by the boundary receiver. USF is playing stick coverage, lining up their seven pass defenders twenty-four yards downfield, trying to keep everything in front of them. They rush three and then a fourth on a green dog blitz. King takes the snap, rolls right, to the field side and throws the equivalent of a Hail Mary.
How Courtney Lark comes down with the ball, we'll never know. Two Bull defenders are in better position; somehow the ball gets through their hands and into the waiting hands of Lark. Enjoy your smoothie, Houston.
Now the Cougars have another problem, the clock is going to start running on the set for play signal, and they've got to refocus.
1st and 10, USF 33, 57 seconds, clock running
The Cougars have a choice; they are on the edge of field goal range with a kicker who's made five straight attempts. Applewhite's strategy is to get closer and into more comfortable field goal range, then, if time permits, maybe take a shot into the paint. Brian Stewart calls a screen to Mulbah Car; Car gets eight yards.
We're going to show you this three-play sequence to give you an idea of how quickly time can get away from you. Houston loses seventeen precious seconds between snaps. Car has to run across the field to get into position as a receiver in the empty set. The clock bleeds from 48 seconds to 31. King hits Linell Bonner for a first down. King gets a spike, and the clock stops with 25 seconds to play.
On second down King is flushed out of bounds on a scramble and picks up a yard.
3rd and 9, USF 20 yard line, 19 seconds, clock stopped
In his post-game press conference, Applewhite said that third down was designed to get five more yards for the kicker and above all else, avoid a sack. If the play breaks down, Applewhite wants King to throw it away. A sack is a killer here. The Cougars bring in their big-bodied tight end, Alex Leslie to run what offenses call a rub route. Defenses call this an illegal pick play. Regardless, Bonner breaks out at five yards and King rolls to the field side. Applewhite and Johnson are very conscious of King's size and design the play to get him outside the pocket.
Notice the back side where Steven Dunbar runs a slant/cross. His route leaves the boundary side utterly void of any human life. The play looks like it works, Bonner flashes open, but King is staring down a free-rushing defensive end.
Here's where a player as gifted as King pays dividends and goes off script, creating a bit of luck.
The Bulls backside defensive end rushes upfield, leaving a gap that King sees and exploits. From there it's all on King who either has to get the first down, get out of bounds, or score. If USF tackles King short of the first down the ball game is likely over. Full credit to Steven Dunbar for peeling back and catching enough of the cornerback to clear a path of King to get into the end zone. Touchdown, disastrous three-game losing skid averted, and unblemished season ruined.
All that thanks to a bit of luck and a newly discovered playmaking quarterback.