Pony NATE-tion: SMU offensive line needs big performance against stout TCU defense
Mustangs face first road test at 2:30 Saturday in Fort Worth Posted on 09/15/2017 by PonyFans.com
PonyFans.com is proud to have 17-year-old Nate as a guest columnist. In this installment, Nate breaks down the Mustangs' first road game of the season: at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCU.
|Nate says the chance for offensive success for SMU Saturday against TCU centers around whether the offensive line can protect Ben Hicks and the other quarterbacks and open lanes to get the ground game untracked (photo by Max Franklin).
Feel free to post comments and constructive criticism, ask him questions, and/or give suggestions for upcoming columns! (He can be followed on Twitter at @Pony_NATE_tion.)
It’s the week every SMU fan looks forward to every year. It’s TCU week, as the Battle for the Iron Skillet takes place at Amon G. Carter Stadium Saturday afternoon. Though Vegas isn’t giving the Mustangs much of a chance, there is a buzz and swagger about the Mustangs that gives a sense of hope and confidence going into this game. The No. 20 Horned Frogs clearly present SMU with its toughest test of the season, and given the dismantling the Mustangs performed on North Texas last week, SMU seems ready for the challenge.
As expected, Courtland Sutton tore apart the UNT defense, going for eight catches, 164 yards, and four (yes, four) touchdowns. This is now two straight years the Mean Green have had absolutely no answer for Sutton as he put up similar numbers in last year’s matchup. The ground game looked solid, especially Xavier Jones, who seemed to regain his mojo, finding the end zone twice. Ben Hicks looked really good, throwing for four touchdowns and 312 yards, as he led an offense that ripped off 38 unanswered points after falling behind early, 10-0.
Defensively, the Mustangs are flying around to the ball, particularly linebacker Kyran Mitchell, who racked up two more sacks, and has started his junior season very nicely. Defensive end Justin Lawler was his usual self, taking UNT quarterback Mason Fine down twice as well. Safety Elijah McQueen and defensive tackle Demerick Gary each picked off a pass, and the defense continued to get takeaways, showing real continuity from last year. The defensive line again will be crucial to an upset this Saturday.
The Frogs have regained their swagger after a couple of down years, getting off to a 63-0 rout of an FCS opponent (Jackson State), and going to Fayetteville and dominating Arkansas 28-7. The TCU defense looks scary-good. The Frogs are led defensively by safety Ridwan Issahaku and All-Big 12 linebacker Travin Howard. Head coach Gary Patterson again is leading one of the nation’s prized defenses. It will be an interesting transition from the tough, clock-eating Arkansas offense to the high-flying, fast-paced Chad Morris “Up Tempo” scheme. TCU held Arkansas to 267 total yards of offense.
Offensively, TCU quarterback Kenny Hill seems to be back on track. Although he did not find the end zone against Arkansas, he was making smart throws and running the offense effectively. What has been making the TCU offense tick has been the offensive line. Running between the tackles has been a huge key to TCU’s early success and running back Darius Anderson has been thriving, averaging 7.1 yards per carry against the Razorbacks. Hill has been sacked just once so far this season. The Frogs don’t have many playmakers on the outside, with no one eclipsing 100 yards for the season yet, but the receiving corps does provide depth and versatility.
The specific matchups that are supremely important for the Ponies this week are in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Mustang defensive front has looked stout to say the least. Opposing quarterbacks are constantly under pressure, and SMU has worn out the first two offensive lines it has seen. TCU’s physical offensive line against SMU’s deep and talented front seven will be a huge matchup. The SMU offensive line has not necessarily been great, but it has been good enough to keep Hicks standing and made the ground game very effective in the opener against SFA.
All this hope comes with one caveat: TCU is proving to be a real bear of a matchup, and SMU has seen nothing close to the speed and physicality the Frogs present. SFA and UNT are nowhere near TCU’s level. Whether the Mustangs’ early dominance translates against an extremely talented squad like TCU is sketchy. TCU’s secondary locked down Arkansas, and the Mustangs will try to spread the field with their talented receivers and take the top off the Frogs’ defense to open up the ground game for Jones, Ke’Mon Freeman and Braeden West.
A lot of things will have to go right Saturday for SMU to pull a huge upset, but here are my main keys to the game for SMU:
1. This one is the biggest: take care of the ball. Bottom line, if turnovers begin to accumulate, SMU has chance. Hicks has a history of giving the ball away (having thrown 16 interceptions in 14 career games) and the Mustangs will need an exceptional performance out of him.
2. Put pressure on Hill and contain the ground game: SMU defensive coordinator Van Malone has done a fantastic job drawing up a scheme that has allowed the Ponies’ defense to put heat on quarterbacks, and that will have to continue. If the Mustangs can control the line of scrimmage and contain Darius Anderson, they can force Hill to beat them. Stuffing the run is key because it will put Hill in tough third and long situations. Hill has a history of being inaccurate, and forcing errant throws into SMU’s ball-hawking secondary is key.
3. Getting the secondary receivers going will do wonders for the SMU offense. Sutton will continue to draw a ridiculous amount of attention, and almost never will be in a one-on-one situation. Trey Quinn and James Proché (who has been somewhat quiet so far) will need to open the field up for Sutton. The double — sometimes triple — coverage Sutton draws will present Quinn, Proché and the others opportunities to make plays.
4. The SMU offensive line must protect Hicks and get the run game humming. If Hicks has to throw a ridiculous amount and the running backs have nowhere to go, this game is as good as over. Jones, Freeman and West need lanes to go through TCU’s elite front seven.
I’m more than skeptical about SMU’s ability to open up holes through which to run the ball and Hicks’ ability to take care of the ball against TCU’s elite defense. Hicks will be under a lot of fire and TCU will force him into some bad decisions, and that will prove costly for the Mustangs. SMU will need its playmakers — namely Sutton — to show up in a big way. Defensively, I’m confident the Mustangs defense will keep SMU in the game early, but the TCU defense will stifle the Mustang offense, and the SMU defense will wear down due to being on the field so much. It will be a tight game at first, but the Frogs will wear down the Mustangs and pull away late.
Nate’s take: TCU 31, SMU 13