Nov. 14, 2011
TULSA, Okla. - Tulsa head football coach Bill Blankenship discussed last week's victory over Marshall and previewed UTEP in Monday's press conference.
I was very pleased and we were very solid all-around (against Marshall.) We were extremely efficient on offense with 680-plus yards and extremely efficient on defense. One of the stats that coaches pointed out to me that was very pleased is that seven of 15 possessions were three-and-outs. That's really a huge statement about where we are getting to defensively. Special teams had a takeaway on a kickoff and we're generating that kind of production as well.
We gave game balls offensively to Ja'Terian Douglas, Bryan Burnham and, we weren't sure how to do this, but G.J. Kinne and the offensive line combined to throw for 300 yards and essentially neutralize Vinny Curry in the process. I thought that was a big deal for us.
Defensively, Shawn Jackson and Milton Howell received game balls, as did Alan Dock who had eight tackles in one of his better games.
On special teams, we wanted to make special recognition to a guy that's flown under the radar, but J.D. Ratliff has been fielding our punts and returning our punts. He did an incredible job with poise considering the wind. I teased him at a team meeting and asked if he played soccer before because I thought it was a perfect header that he picked up on the dribble for a return. J.D. has done a great job of doing a very-poised job of fielding those punts.
You have always had close games at UTEP
We have not done well the last three times we've been there. We've played close.. They've played well at home over the years. Statistically, it's interesting to look at the stat sheet for UTEP. They are 5-5 and if you compare the opponent's stats with UTEP stats, it's fairly even all the way down. They are playing at home and they will play with passion. It's senior recognition day and they are playing for bowl eligibility. They will make it tough on us and we certainly haven't played well there in the past.
What does it say for Conference USA that there are two teams in the Top 25?
From early on, when we were having conversations, this is a year that Conference USA has shown up well. We've done well playing the out of conference opponents. You talk about Marshall, Houston, Rice ... there's been a whole lot of teams that's gotten some big scalps this year. The fact that Houston is undefeated still speaks well to what they are doing. Southern Miss survived a good one to stay at one loss and they are certainly well-deserving to being in the rankings.
What do you think about Tulsa being a little under the radar?
I think it's understandable. We are a three-loss team. As much as we'd like to put some kind of graded scale on there, a sliding scale, you don't get bonus points because you get beat by good teams. The Ls are still big Ls and the Ws are still big Ws. We're fine working our way through this thing and it will all shake out as the season unfolds. We are at a great point in our season and we're excited about our opportunity. We just need to take care of what we can control. Hopefully, we'll earn a change in perception.
Some teams, even in the conference, have scheduled easier opponents in the nonconference. It's almost like you are almost punished for your schedule and playing difficult opponents in the beginning. If you play an easier schedule, maybe you are ranked right now?
That's just the reality of college football. People have been having that discussion for a number of years and the BCS has created more of an actual factor. Not only just wins and losses, but style points. How important is that? It's different. Now I think even your top 10 programs are having to decide in their out-of-conference opponents to not schedule all kinds of terrible teams. They have to balance it and get challenged. Very few are going to want to play three top 10 teams, let alone top five teams.
Can you talk about the maturity of this team?
So far, that's been something I've been very pleased with. This is a team that's grown up maturity wise. They've answered the bell pretty well on the games that we were worried. Can you answer in Tulane coming off the OU game? Can you start at 11 in the morning? All these things we faced, they've responded very well. I really like where we are leadership wise and the chemistry of this team and that says a lot about their maturity, individually and certainly as a unit.
How important is that with these next two games?
Huge. I think going to UTEP now and we have accomplished something. Nothing has been awarded to us, but we know we are going to play two weeks from now for the championship of our division. We really want to be the best team we can be and the meeting we've had as a team and the things I've heard from them encouraged me that we're nowhere near satisfied.
You have six games worth of momentum that can help?
We want to be able to go into the Houston game with momentum. The other thing is, if you really want to get to planning ahead, we keep talking about holding our own destiny. That comes even with the conference championship game. If Houston and Tulsa win out, then the champion will host the conference championship game. That's enough to play for as well. We're very cognizant of what's at stake when we go to UTEP. Mostly, we just want to play well and our guys will respond that way.
What UTEP game do you expect to see on Saturday? Do you expect a high-scoring game?
I hope not. Defensively, we're playing a little better. I always get a little nervous if we get into a shootout, not because we couldn't respond to that, but we're playing good enough defense to help in either scenario. We went to Central Florida and played in a little more close-to-the-vest type game and it wouldn't surprise me if that's' what it becomes at UTEP. If you watched the UTEP-Houston game, you saw a barrage of points and an incredible down-to-the-wire finish. It was 49-42. That's a lot of points. You know what they are capable of doing. They have the athleticism and skill to do that.
Saturday, you said you were irritated at giving up 17 points. Did you ever think you'd get to the point where 17 is unacceptable?
I hoped we'd get to that point and I'm pleased that's where we are getting to. I don't think we're close to playing our best game defensively, but we are getting to be a better defense and one we can take a lot of pride. It's fascinating that it's the first time in our conference that a particular school has won three awards back-to-back for defense and they've been three different guys. The rest of that story is who would have thought it would have been Tulsa. I'm excited we're playing that type of defense.
You mentioned Saturday that no team has ran the table in conference? Is it exciting to do that with your guys and a new staff?
There's a lot of satisfaction in it. I've coached a long time and I just have to be who I am. You have a lot of old "high school playoff" guy in you. The last two games doesn't matter, it's just what you do this week. People will forget about how well we're playing if we don't play well at UTEP. That satisfaction comes when you finish the journey. That's where we have an opportunity to get to and I'm pleased with where we are. I'm proud of our staff, they've done a great job,. Ultimately, it's the players. They've responded so well. They've taken ownership. They are the guys that have been through the adversity and have come out strong for it. That gives me a lot of pride and satisfaction.
Can you talk a little about Alan Dock?
He's just typical of what, over the years, of who Tulsa has been. You find those special guys out of high school that fit here. Alan is not only a fourth-year senior. He's really a first-year grad student because he graduated in three years. He's now in grad school and already has been hired by a major accounting firm for when he gets out of school in the summer. That's a guy, by the way, had eight tackles last week. It's a neat story for a guy that doesn't fit all the measurables that we look for in four- and five-star recruits.
Alan is a guy that really, especially when he plays against our own offense, he sees it awhile and he gets it. We have a phrase for what he does for the opponent's quarterbacks because he does it to every quarterback in our system - he got Docked. He is going to intercept a ball by knowing where they are going to go and being at the same place.
You said you are trying to find yourself a bit. Defensively, you were in the same boat by bringing in a new guy and trying new things. What's been bigger: finding yourself on offense, defense or the same?
I don't know. I think it's similar journeys. I really felt like, in the spring, that we were showing signs of being a really good defense. I felt really the pieces of the puzzle we weren't sure about was the interior part of our defensive front. They've just been very solid and because of that, it's allowed us to do a lot of things that we've done and we're grown. Then you play Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise and now you aren't sure if you can be a good defense or not. That's what happens to you confidence-wise. I'm not surprised, but I am very pleased that we have developed into a physical defense.
Offensively, it's the same end result, but a different path. We felt better about ourselves in the spring because we had more pieces of the puzzle. Then 10 days before we go to Oklahoma, we become a different personnel team. We did that on offense and defense. The changes really began to reflecton our style of play. I think it took us a little longer offensively to figure out - I keep saying that and don't mean it in the intellectual side of it - who are our playmakers on the field and how can we format it get them in the best position to be successful. I think we've done a good job of figuring out who those guys are.
Clay Sears played a lot in the past, but was a byproduct of the offense. After awhile, we figured the system we were in meant every time Willie Carter came on the field, Clay Sears came off the field. We figured out why don't we come up with a way to keep both guys on the field. Those are the things I'm talking about evolving as an offense. We can have a tight end and H-back on the field at the same time. That's been our go-to in the past 6-7 weeks and that's made a difference.
Did you feel like your offense and defense both had to be different after what happened to Damaris at the beginning of the season?
We needed a defense that could allow our offense to grow up and we needed an offense that could take of the defense when they give you the ball. Football is unique. If all you focus in on one thing or another, offensively, it's so foreign to a defensive-minded guy because offensively if you can go 1 out of 10, you've done well. On defense, if you have a breakdown 1 of 10 - you can play well nine times - but you break down once, it's a touchdown ... defensively, you have to play every down and offensively, you have to be patient and hit the rock, hit the rock and hit the rock and then you can break through. It's developing those personalities and letting them grow into the system. Our guys have grown into that.
Was the UCF game one where you had to play like that?
It was the first time we saw a full game and we're starting to be able to play the full game.
Where do you feel that the defense began to buy in?
Last spring. For everybody else that sees it, it may become more apparent as the season progressed, but if you have been in spring practice every day. They were a very good defensive team against a relatively high powered offense. We were having trouble when we had our quarterback, running back and receivers. In spring practice, you want to pass that off as them knowing your plays and they know our no-huddle system and know all that and get an edge. Offensively, it was late in the spring before we were able to move the ball consistently.
Were there any set of players that stepped up?
We have flet zero resistance to our players. Whether you want to credit our players or the staff, there has been buy-in all the way around. That's one of the reasons you want to be successful. When everyone is going the same direction, there's a chance that you can be successful. Our players received our new coaches openly and were excited. Our coaches, on the other hand, did a good job of earning the trust of our players.
You said you didn't care about where you played, and that you just wanted to make the championship game. There is a lot at stake at UTEP.
We just like the fact that we love to play at Chapman. This is our place and there's a lot of difference in coming out of our locker room and getting ready to play than someplace else. That's why in college football, statistically, the home team always has an edge statistically. It's a big deal to play at home. Getting to the game is a much bigger deal for us than where we play.
Are the kids focused on UTEP and understand they need this win to have a chance to host the title game?
A couple of players told me that first. We were talking about keeping momentum and moving forward. We want to play at home. That's important. It matters to our players.
Can you talk about UTEP?
Schematically, they are similar to what we saw from Marshall offensively. They are going to play with tight ends a lot and have quarterbacks effective in throwing the football and running the football. If you put their film on, they look similar to Marshall in the types of plays they run. They are very athletic at receiver and the running back spot. You flip over on defense and this is one of the faster defenses that we've played against. They are all over the place and match up well with the faster teams that they play. They can run with the Houston's of the conference. Schematically, they put a lot of pressure on and play a lot of man coverage and try to load the box and stop the run. They have productive punt returners and kick returners.