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Friday, October 20, 2017

Football

Not your father’s SMU: Mustangs much improved


Pressure from UH’s front seven forced SMU quarterback Neal Burcham to make quick decisions and allowed the defense to take advantage with three interceptions at Reliant Stadium on Friday. The Cougars’ defense shut out the Mustangs en route to a 34-0 victory. | Caitlin Hilton/The Daily Cougar

The SMU Mustangs (4-1) are a much improved team on both offense and defense this year. | File photo/The Cougar.

After decades of struggles following well-documented NCAA infractions in the 1980s, the SMU Mustangs appear to finally have put the pieces together. Retooled with a dynamic offense and talent across multiple positions on both sides of the ball, SMU is poised to give the Cougars all they can handle Saturday.

The Mustangs enter the game with a 4-1 record and an offense that ranks third among NCAA teams in points per game. SMU’s defense has held it’s own but remains the only facet keeping the Mustangs from becoming perennial bowl contenders.

Here’s a look at how the team shakes out on offense and defense in 2017:

Creative offense showing improvement

Last season was now-sophomore Ben Hicks’ first year as a college quarterback, and the Mustangs weren’t afraid to utilize the inexperienced freshman. SMU’s offense ran a 38 passing plays (No. 78 overall) per game, resulting in tons of yardage and scoring, albeit at the price of inflated interception rates.

The Mustang rushing attack, meanwhile, dwelled in the lower echelon with only 1.5 touchdowns and 163 yards per contest.

Now, with a year of experience under Hicks’ belt, the Mustangs are soaring into the top-five teams in total points (48.2), TD’s (6) and turnovers (0.6) per game. The passing attack places them among the nation’s top 20 teams with 300 yards and 3.2 TD’s through the air each game.

In addition to the passing game, the SMU’s backfield has managed to increase its productivity with an average of three rushing scores per game and has yet to lose a fumble through five games.

The overall resurgence of the Mustang offense can be at least partly attributed to it’s secret weapon: trick plays. Three non-QB’s on the Mustangs’ offense have completed a total of six passes for two touchdowns, something opposing defenses must be aware of.

Being caught off guard by a trick play, even just once or twice, can prove to be the difference between a Cougars’ win or loss Saturday.

Pressure on QB forces mistakes

In 2016, the defense distinguished itself by forcing turnovers while consequently paying the price with penalties, points allowed, yards allowed and TDs given up per game as evidenced by its ranking outside of the top 100 in each category.

Even though the Mustangs’ secondary was able to generate turnovers — specifically interceptions at 1.5 per game — the rush defense remained one of the worst in the nation.

This season, the overall Mustangs’ landscape presents a paradigm shift.

The defense continues to force turnovers — 1.6 per game — while also committing tons of penalties and allowing a 432 yards and four TD’s per contest. Yet now the defensive focus has a renewed focus on the run.

The SMU rushing defense is among the nation’s best, allowing just 107 yards per game and forcing 1.4 fumbles per game. Combined with a league-best 21 sacks,the Mustang defensive front is poised to take the team to the next level.

On the other hand, the Mustangs’ secondary ranks No. 119 in the country with a 325 passing yards allowed per game while also letting opponents complete 65.5 percent of their passes — resulting in 2.4 scores each contest.

Tough to slow down

SMU is 4-0 at home this season, having played just one road game that resulted in a loss against the rush-heavy offense of No. 20-ranked TCU.

Looking closer at the offenses the Mustangs have faced, all four wins came against teams ranking within the top 25 in total passing yardage, including a season-opening 54-32 victory against the North Texas Mean Green, which places within the top 35 in both passing and rushing offense this season.

TCU, which boasts a top-15 rushing defense with a middle-of-the-pack passing defense, remains the only team that has managed to slow down the Mustangs’ offense. The rest of its opponents — no matter how impressive against the run — could not contain the dangerous passing attack of SMU.

Clearly, a high-priority must be placed on eliminating the Mustangs’ air attack.

Overall, fans should be in for a treat come Saturday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday.

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