Tulsa Head Coach Todd Graham Previews C-USA Football Championship Game
Nov. 26, 2007
Tulsa, Oklahoma -
Tulsa and UCF will clash on Saturday afternoon in Orlando, Florida for the Conference USA Football Championship. Tulsa represents the West Division of C-USA after posting an overall 9-3 record and a 6-2 league mark, while UCF edged out East Carolina with a 7-1 C-USA record and an overall mark of 9-3.
The game will be televised on ESPN beginning at 12 noon (ET).
Todd Graham Press Conference Quotes
We're very excited to be playing for the championship again. Playing for the second time in three years speaks volumes about these kids. I'm very proud of our coaching staff and our players and program to be able to accomplish what we set out to at the very beginning. Now we're at the ultimate goal that we've talked about since the beginning, which is be conference champions.
We have our hands full with Central Florida. They have a great football team with probably the best running back in the country. It's probably one of the most hostile places to play. We're looking forward to it. We're proud and excited to be at this point. Now we have to go finish.
Can you talk about the rematch with UCF and what you learned from the first time around?
There wasn't much that we didn't know in that first time. We knew Kevin Smith was a great back. Their quarterback really surprised us with how accurate he was, how well he played and how well he ran the football. He scrambled on us and hurt us several times. I thought that was one of the poorest that we played. We had several pass interference penalties that weren't real smart. We didn't protect our quarterback.
It was a game where we probably did a poor job in personnel. We moved Walter Boyd to center. We moved our starting left tackle to center, so we had two new people in the lineup. That probably wasn't real smart in that game. You have to give them a lot of credit. We had a lot of respect for them because we played them in the championship before. Coach (George) O'Leary does as good a job as anyone in the country. He's a great coach and does a great job preparing. He's done a great job this year with their defense. Their defense is really improved.
The key for us is to go in and contain Kevin Smith and try not to give up long touchdown runs to him. We want to play hard. Our offense needs to protect our quarterback. The bottom line is if we protect our quarterback, and in the games that we've done that, we've been successful. We're very excited about the challenge. They're a good football team. But I also think we're playing our very best football right now and I don't think we were doing that earlier in the year.
Are you going to try to establish the run more against UCF?
Our philosophy is to be balanced in what we're doing. That's something that we'll see what happens on Saturday.
You talked about winning games when it doesn't matter who you're playing. Is winning contagious?
It really is. These kids, like I said in the post-game comments, we're just reaping what we sow. That isn't something that was being sowed last January. This is something that has been sowed for the past five years. I'm really proud of what these kids have done over the past five years.
These kids expect to win. A season is kind of like your life. You go through those valleys and you have the big, high peaks. I think that experience, leadership and character bring about perseverance. To survive in this business and win in Division I college football, you have to win close football games. To do that every week, you have to be able to have guys willing to deny themselves, take up the team and go forward and get better every single day. That's what our team has done. As a coaching staff, it's something that we've done. You have to be adaptive. That's probably one of the things that is harder as you get older. I still see myself as a young coach. My players probably think I'm old, but I see myself as a young coach. We are constantly spending hours upon hours asking if we're being adaptive to our personnel and adaptive to the system that we need to run to help them be successful. It's been a process. I wish you could go through it and then go back and do it again. I think we've been pretty quick in seeing and finding the problems and go back and get the guys in the right spots and the right schemes.
I think we learned a lot from our first contest with Central Florida. The No. 1 thing we learned is that they have a really good football team. It's a really tough place to play. I thought the Citrus Bowl was tough when we went there to play in the conference championship game. I thought it was louder than UTEP. UTEP is one of the toughest places to play. I think our kids have to be more prepared for that. I like our football team right now. I like where we're at.
Even in close games, do your kids feel like they're supposed to win those games?
I never felt like we weren't going to win the game on Saturday. At one point, I thought if we could have gone up 34-9, we could have maybe blown them out. You have to give them credit. Their kids made plays. On fourth and 10 from the one-foot line, (Jarett) Dillard made an incredible play. At no point did I think we were in danger of losing that game. I guess I just have that kind of confidence in our kids. Our kids were very poised on the sideline. Getting those things corrected and getting lined up without the critical errors that we were having is a big key for us.
The key for us is we have to score points and make sure we keep their offense off the field and can't let (Smith) run up and down the field on us. We cannot play from behind against these guys. We can't get into a deal where we let them spoon-feed the ball to him. We need to get ahead of these guys and try to force them into a different game situation than they've been used to.
What makes Kevin Smith such a good running back?
Well, he's fast, quick, explosive and has unbelievable change of direction. He has great vision. He's a first-round draft pick. He's special. He's also very physical. He'll run over you, he'll run around you and he'll out-run you. He's as good a zone runner as I've seen. We were talking about that this morning, about who he reminds us of. But he's really different. He's a unique back. He has great hands and a great future ahead of him. He has great hands and can block well. He's a complete back.
Can you talk about your own back, Tarrion Adams?
I'm very proud of Tarrion. I thought he was a warrior in last week's game. He was a guy that was beat up throughout the year that played extremely well. Tarrion caught a touchdown pass and ran for two more. He's a big-play guy for us and he has to play well. I can tell you when he plays well and we're able to establish him, it does impact our offense tremendously.
Does this week bring back memories of the 2005 run?
The young guys are real excited, but there's also some experience (among the older players). They've been there before and know what they're going into. A lot was said last week about needing this to happen so we could host. The kids had no response to that. We liked going to Orlando (in 2005). But this is a different year and a different team.
That experience. They've got guys that are experienced and have played in a conference championship game. That helps tremendously. The fact that we've won before and have won at this helps guys like Tarrion and Paul. It gives us confidence in what we're doing. I'm sure they'll be the favorite to win, but I think the experience and confidence will help us a great deal. We're going to have our work cut out and we have to play our best game. That's what we have to do.
Can you talk about the job that Coach O'Leary has done at UCF?
They've done a really good job. They've got really good talent there. Defensively is where they made the biggest improvement. Special teams, too. The return game is dangerous. Their punt returner and kick returner are exceptional guys. They're a well-coached football team. They're not going to do things to beat themselves. They really establish the run and try to play field position with you.
Simply put, in the last game we turned the ball over five times. We can't do that. If we go into this thing and can take care of the football with 100 percent ball security, then we'll be in good shape.
Can you talk about their defensive line?
Their defensive line is as good as we've seen this year. I've been really impressed with them. They've got 6 to 7 guys that they can rotate in there. They have depth at that position and I think the strength of their team would be that defensive line. Their corners are exception, big and fast. They play extremely hard and put a lot of pressure on Paul last time with a four-man pass rush. They lead the league with 30 sacks. That's going to be the big matchup. Having Jody Whaley back and having our regular crew back is going to help us a great deal to be able to handle that type of pressure that they'll put on us.
What about their big receivers that they can put on the field?
I thought they executed (in the first match-up). They ran a lot of slant patterns. They ran some fly patterns down the field. They really didn't hurt us down the field at all. We had some pass interference penalties. Their receivers are big and imposing, but they hurt us with the tight end. It boils down to one thing. Coach O'Leary knows what he's doing. They give you eight gaps to defend and have No. 24 in the backfield. You have to make plays. It's very simple. It's going to be a simple deal. We have to contain and control 24. No one has stopped the guy, but you have to keep it to a minimum. Then we have to get some takeaways. We need some turnovers. And we have to take care of the ball.
Paul has done a great job in the last four weeks. I think it's a main reason why we're playing so much better. We haven't turned the football over. In this game here, it's critical that we move those first down sticks and do as much as we can to keep their offense off the field.
Is Paul playing the best football of his career right now?
There's no question about that. He broke the conference record for most touchdowns in one season and owns almost every record now. There's no question that he should be the MVP in our conference. I think he has All-American numbers and should be considered there. I was really disappointed that he was not listed as a top-10 for the Davey O'Brien Award. He's been phenomenal. There's no doubt in my mind that he's among the top five quarterbacks in the country, and among the top three. In my book, he's the best. He's been tremendous for us. He has a lot of confidence right now and is playing very well.
People don't realize that this is a new offense and every term has been new for Paul Smith. I think after week 8, he really started digesting all of it and started to understand about being patient. Be patient and that helps us take care of the football. He's pretty special. Whatever accolades he gets, he's very deserving and I don't think he gets enough. The guy's an All-American in my opinion.
Can you talk about the attitude of the team right now, especially after being in this situation before?
I think that's why we talked earlier in the year about expectations. I think it helps you that you put the expectations out there of being champions. Somebody told me we were 4-3 at one time. I only know what we did yesterday, we press forward so hard. I think those expectations just helped us. Every one of those guys, we have a laminated picture of us hoisting up the Conference USA trophy from 2005 and it has all the kids' hands. The picture says we will win championships. The kids got that last January and we've focused on that. When you get there, we expected to be there. Was it easy? No. But the No. 1 motto that we have on the back of that piece of paper is that we're going to finish. Nothing else is acceptable to me, or our players, than winning.
Do you have a preference of playing in the Liberty Bowl or Hawaii Bowl?
There's no other place that I'd rather be than Memphis. That's where our focus is. I'm pretty single-minded when it comes to that.
Would it be great to add another 10-win season to the history of this program?
We're after 11. When you go out on this wall and look, you'll see the most wins that anyone's had is 10 in one season at The University of Tulsa. I know Paul and I and Nelson (Coleman) and Chris (Chamberlain) and Anthony Germany, we've talked about not looking at statistics.
We talked about going out and being the winningest football team in the history of Tulsa football. That would be very special. There's a reason why it hasn't been done because it's very difficult to do. We have two shots left, so we have a chance to do that. Naturally 10 is incredible and make us tied with the most ever, but 11 would be something special. We have to get 10, before we could get to 11.
Paul said the other day, wouldn't it be awesome to go out that way? That tells you what kind of guy he is, too. I know those records mean a lot to him, but nothing means more to him than the team being successful.
Can you talk about your first visit this season to UCF?
Our kids always have confidence in what they're doing. It was definitely the valley of the season. But we have a lot of confidence right now. And it helps us too because our kids have a lot of respect for them. They whipped our tails the last time we went there and we see this is as a great challenge. But we are a different team.
The mental aspect of the game is the most important thing. That's where I spend all my time. I spend an enormous amount of time with our strength staff and our coaches. Everything that we do is about mental training. You coach kids hard and work them hard. At the same time, you have to balance that with great confidence. And all the sudden you look up and you have a mentally tough football team.
The mental aspect is critical and I think it's very important how we start this game. Our guys understand that.
Can you talk about Anthony Germany?
Anthony had the flu and was throwing up all night long at Rice. He was sick in between the series. He was very sick. Naturally, it was something that he's worked through, including the bumps and bruises that he's had. He's missed some practices, but he's played every game except I held him out of the Army game, but he would have played if I let him. I'm very proud of him. He's had an all-conference season. He was very physical the other night.
ATHLETICS TICKET OFFICE