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Monday, December 9, 2019

Football

State of the AAC: SMU survives upset bid, stay alive in West title race


The Mustangs, shown taking on the Cougars on Oct. 24, narrowly escaped the Pirates' potential upset, keeping them as the front runner for the American Athletic Conference West title and at the top of the AAC in overall wins. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

The Mustangs, shown taking on the Cougars on Oct. 24, narrowly escaped the Pirates’ potential upset, keeping them as the front runner for the American Athletic Conference West title and at the top of the AAC in overall wins. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

The No. 25 SMU Mustangs kept themselves alive in the battle for the American Athletic Conference West title with 59-51 victory over the upset-minded and AAC rival ECU Pirates on Saturday afternoon in Dallas.

SMU (9-1, 5-1) rebounded from its first defeat of the season against Memphis in an all-offense matchup with ECU (3-7, 0-6), who will miss a bowl game for the fifth straight year.

The two teams combined for 1,280 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The Mustang’s high-powered offense, averaging 522.2 yards per game, the sixth-most in the nation, has been crucial in their surprise season.

The driving force for this offense has been quarterback Shane Buechele, a Texas transfer who recorded 414 yards and five touchdowns in SMU’s ninth win of the season.

The redshirt junior’s 249 completions, 3,195 yards and 28 passing touchdowns all lead the conference.

While Buechele’s passing has captivated the conference this season, ECU’s sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers’ six touchdown outing was the highlight of the game, despite the loss.

To pair with his six passing touchdowns, Ahlers completed 32 of 42 pass attempts for 498 yards. In his last two games, both against ranked opponents, Ahlers has racked up 1,033 yards, completed 68.1 percent of his passes and has thrown for 10 touchdowns and just one interception.

With two games left in the regular season, SMU’s season may be defined by its next game against No. 24 Navy (7-1, 5-1) on Nov. 23 in Annapolis, Maryland, as the two vie for the top spot in the AAC West.

As for ECU, the Pirates have not won a game since late September and will return to action at UConn (2-8, 0-6) on Nov. 23 as both sides look for their first conference victory.

The Huskies’ struggles continued Saturday afternoon as they were decimated by the No. 20 Cincinnati Bearcats (8-1, 5-0) 48-3, with their sole field goal coming with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Cincinnati rolled to its seventh-straight victory and maintained its stronghold on the AAC East with three games to play. The Bearcats have scored 35 or more points five times during its unbeaten run.

Backed by a balanced offense, Cincinnati recorded 200 passing yards and 307 rushing yards, with sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder’s 136 yards and two touchdowns leading the way in the air.

Ridder’s 94 yards on the ground were bested only by junior running back Gerrid Doaks’ 123 yards, which he paired with one touchdown.

Cincinnati’s pursuit of a spot in the AAC Championship Game was strengthened by UCF’s (7-3, 4-2) defeat by Tulsa (3-7, 1-5) on Friday night.

The Golden Hurricanes earned their first conference win of the season 34-31, led by redshirt freshman Jacob Rainey’s 23-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.

Backed by its stifling defense, Tulsa held the two-time defending AAC champions to just three second-half points and forced three UCF turnovers.

The Knights, who have suffered more losses this season than they did the past two combined, will have a week off before returning to action at the Tulane Green Wave (6-3, 3-2) on Nov. 23. Tulsa will battle Houston (3-6, 1-4) the same day.

Temple (6-3, 3-2) became bowl eligible with its defeat of USF (4-5, 2-3) 17-7 on Thursday night.

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