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Why Did Todd Graham And Tulsa Bomb In 2009?

Reader BobPurkey34 offers some good insight on why Tulsa went 5-7 in 2009

I'd be willing to bet that there aren't too many Pitt fans out there that religiously follow the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. So at first glance at his tenure with the program, Todd Graham had three 10+ win seasons in four years and three bowl wins. But what happened in 2009?

The Golden Hurricane dropped to 5-7, Graham's first losing season as a head coach, and did not qualify for a bowl game. After two wildly successful years to begin his Tulsa career, what went south?

Two observations present themselves immediately. First, his losses at the quarterback position. In his first two years, Graham went through two QB's, 5000-yard passer Paul Smith in 2007, then 4000-yard passer David Johnson in 2008. Both quarterbacks were seniors in the respective years and both had been with the program for more than three years. In 2009 however, Graham was forced to start a sophomore - G.J. Kinne - who had never thrown a pass in a collegiate game prior to starting. 

He redshirted at Texas in 2007, then transferred to Tulsa and was forced to sit out the 2008 year. No matter where you are coaching in D-1 football, starting a quarterback who had never got his feet wet in a game is a tough thing to do, especially when trying to replace a guy who had just thrown for over 4000 yards and 46 touchdowns. 

Second, Graham's good friend and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn had just left for the Auburn job. Malzahn is probably one of the best offensive minds in the country, and losing him would be a huge blow to any offense. Was he the driving force behind Graham's first two years?

Maybe. But on second look, probably not.

With a green quarterback and a new OC, Tulsa still managed to score nearly 30 points per game. Graham then followed it up in 2010 by re-establishing the Golden Hurricane as one of the most explosive teams in the nation, averaging 41.1 points/game and over 500 yards of offense an outing.

Next, we have to consider the opposition Tulsa faced. In 2008, Tulsa only faced one ranked team all year, being #22 Ball State in the GMAC Bowl, a team Graham destroyed 45-13. However in 2009, Graham faced quite a stiffer challenge with three top 15 teams on the schedule. After mowing down Tulane and New Mexico on the road, Tulsa travelled to Oklahoma to face the #12 Sooners, who had won 25 straight home games at the time. You can guess how that one went.

Several weeks later, the Golden Hurricane played host to #5 Boise State and fell by a touchdown. In fact Graham's squad was in a position to at least take it to overtime, however, while driving the ball for the tying score, Kinne came up short on a 4th down play which allowed Boise to run out the clock for the win. 

So far, 4-2, with both losses coming to top 15 teams. Nothing wrong with losing at Oklahoma or by a touchdown to Boise.

But that's when Graham and Tulsa seemed to go south. A Wednesday night trip to UTEP saw the Kinne and company roar to a 24-13 lead halfway through the 4th quarter, but this time it was the defense that couldn't get stops when they needed it most. A UTEP touchdown + 2-point conversion swung all the momentum back to the home side and the Miners ended up scoring the game-winning touchdown with 29 seconds on the clock.

Kinne then threw out a dud on homecoming weekend against SMU, going 2-of-10 passing for 10 yards as the Tulsa offense turned the ball over on their first 3 possessions of the game. Backup Jacob Bower came on in the 2nd quarter and didn't fare much better. The defense was also mercilessly picked apart by SMU's Kyle Padron to the tune of 355 yards.

Next up was Case Keenum and the #15 Houston Cougars. After two disappointing performances, this one was anything but. Kinne rebounded and had Tulsa leading 45-37 with three minutes remaining in the game, but the defense couldn't stop Keenum all day long and there was no reason to believe they would in the fourth (40-for-60, 522 yards passing). Houston kicker Matt Hogan then hit a 51-yarder for a 46-45 win as time expired. So close, yet so far away, as another ranked team slips away from Tulsa's grip.

Maybe another heart breaking loss killed the team spirit. The offense seemed to sputter in big moments while the defense continued to get mauled, allowing 44, 44 and 30 points to finish the season. 

Graham has never been known for his abilities on defense. Here is a quick comparison between 2008 and '09.

Line A: Allowed 379.1 yards per game and 5.7 yards/play, 27.9 PPGA

Line B: Allowed 397.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards/play, 27.3 PPGA

Can you tell a difference? I can't. Line A was his 11-3 year of 2008 while Line B was 2009. On paper and on the field, his defense between the two seasons was nearly identical. Same numbers and essentially the same players. But the main point here is that neither defense was any good, only difference was it's weaknesses were exposed way more in 2009 when there wasn't an offense scoring 40+ to back it up.

Was 2009 simply an aberration for Graham? A new quarterback, new offensive coordinator, and a much tougher schedule put him behind the 8-ball. If his team was able to make only a few more plays, they could have been looking at 8-4 and a bowl game instead of 5-7. Shoulda, coulda, woulda. But mostly, it just seems like a down year for the program where they lost some key figures and had to face an overly ambitious schedule. 

His 2010 campaign would make you believe that it was not an aberration. He returned the team to it's winning ways, once again scoring 40 points a game, but this time without Malzahn. He had very solid wins at Notre Dame, at Houston, vs Southern Miss and then another huge bowl win, this time over #24 Hawaii. 

My verdict? It's a bad year, but no real cause for concern in his coaching ability. 

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