For as dreadful as Rhode Island was in 2014, its running game did provide at least a small glimmer of hope. When the Rams were even slightly successful, they ran the ball well. In their 13-7 win over Towson on Nov. 22, running backs Lyle McCombs and Harold Cooper combined for 157 rushing yards on 37 carries.
McCombs (formerly of UConn, if you forgot), who averaged 110.5 yards rushing in the six games he played, was the leader of the Rams' ground attack. He's gone now, but he's replaced by sophomore Harold Cooper, who was nearly as productive as McCombs last season, even if in a more limited role.
Cooper ran for 417 yards in 2014, averaging 4.6 yards per carry in the process. His most productive outing came in a Oct. 18 loss to Richmond, when he carried the ball 14 times for 98 yards. He also had 83 rushing yards on 17 carries in a loss at Delaware two weeks later.
This season, Cooper is primed to be his team's top offensive weapon, and Rhode Island is treating him as such.
Cooper should be able to at least slightly test a Syracuse defensive line that seriously lacks experience. Even though he isn't an FBS running back, it's worth noting that he was a three-star prospect in 2014 and had an offer from Boston College. That doesn't make him an all-world back by any means, but at least he's a talent at the same level of competition SU's used to seeing. Last season, URI's ground production grew exponentially with Cooper in the lineup.
Without Cooper in three of the first four games, the Rams failed to average 70 rushing yards per game. But with him, Rhode Island was held under 100 rushing yards just twice (vs. Villanova and Brown), and averaged 136 per game (including four games of 150 or more). The opponents in that stretch also ranged from great ('Nova, New Hampshire, Stony Brook) to poor (Towson, Brown), and it didn't seem to correlate to the team's production at all. Cooper was a force on the ground. Now we get to see if he can do so without two of his primary running mates.
McCombs was a smaller, shiftier back -- a slasher with good speed that helped create a change of pace vs. Cooper (5'9" and 185 pounds), who can at least utilize a bit more power, even if he's not a "power back" at all. The other absence Cooper will need to contend with is that of James Caparell under center. Grabbing the starting QB job after Mack Lowrie struggled in the role, he was a competent passer whose value really came from being able to pick up yardage with his legs. The threat of a mobile quarterback freed things up for McCombs and Cooper, but that won't be the case this season. New starter Paul Mroz is much more of a pocket passer, and won't be taking off to run the ball much. That leaves Cooper on his own to carry the weight of the run game: a tall order, albeit one that's assisted slightly by four returning starters on the offensive line.
It's tough to say what we'll get from the passing game, given Mroz's limited time in the system. So for now, the only quantifiable element of the offense -- the rushing attack -- is our main point of emphasis. Unless you have a gimmick-type approach, it can be tough for an FCS squad to beat an FBS squad with the run game alone. But should Mroz struggle against the Orange pass rush, Rhode Island might have to try to lean on Cooper in order to keep things close.