Pony NATE-tion: Running game, pass rush key Saturday at Houston
Ponies face Cougars in AAC road opener at 6 PM Saturday
Posted on 10/04/2017 by PonyFans.com
Nate says the increased pressure provided by SMU linemen like Justin Lawler has allowed defensive coordinator Van Malone to improve the pass defense by dropping more players into coverage (photo by Patrick Kleineberg).
PonyFans.com is proud to have 17-year-old Nate as a guest columnist. In this installment, Nate breaks down the Mustangs' first AAC road game this Saturday at Houston.

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.)


The Mustangs have gotten off to a surprising 4-1 start after defeating Connecticut, 49-28, last week, the first 4-1 start for SMU since 2011. Though the four wins have come against lower-quality teams, the Ponies have impressed through the first month, to the tune of 48.3 points per game, ranking them third in the nation. But Saturday was a bit concerning for the Mustangs, because the schedule will ramp up and teams will be much better than UConn. The score shows a 21-point blowout, but this game was knotted up at 28 early on in the fourth quarter … although credit is due to the Mustangs for making a monstrous push in the fourth quarter to bury the Huskies.

What struck me was the pass rush. Sure, Jordan Wyatt is one of the best corners in the country, and his absence certainly was felt against UConn, but this pass rush is turning into something special. Adding in a newly healthy Mason Gentry, who pitched in two sacks, gives more ammo for Van Malone to have at his disposal. The Mustangs have a lot of weapons up front. Justin Lawler’s four sacks of Bryant Shirreffs were incredible, but knowing Lawler, not terribly shocking. Kyran Mitchell really has flourished in his junior season and had another great game, racking up nine tackles, four of those for a loss. But the negative side of things is that the secondary needs Wyatt. Without him, the secondary looked lost at times and there were many blown coverages. Wyatt’s health will be key to a big win against Houston.

The offense impressed again. Ben Hicks seems to be coming into his own and is maturing by the week. He raised his completion percentage and continues to improve, completing 27 of his 37 attempts, up to 72 percent from his normal percentage that hovers around 50 percent.

The receivers — namely Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton — are impressive. Sutton was back to his usual proceedings, catching seven balls for 112 yards and two scores. Quinn has continued to thrive playing opposite a force like Sutton, hauling in a whopping 15 balls for 116 yards and two scores. Quinn’s presence has been a gift for the SMU offense and the Ponies’ leading receiver has been mostly remarkable through five weeks. Of Hicks’ 27 completions, 22 were split between Quinn and Sutton, who have become one of the marquee receiving duos in the country.

But the Mustangs have a large test awaiting them Saturday in Houston, taking on the hated Houston Cougars, a team that had a lot of hype going into last year, but petered off after losses in conference play added up. SMU defeated the then-No. 11 Cougars at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in a shocking upset. (Because of a scheduling conflict, the radio broadcast for the game will be on 570 AM-KLIF.)

The 2017 Cougars are not quite as prolific as Tom Herman’s teams, but head coach Major Applewhite has the Cougars 3-1, with the one loss coming at home against a much-improved Texas Tech team, 27-24. Houston also has an impressive road win against a low-end Power 5 program: Arizona. Houston is coming off a 20-13 road win over Temple as the American Athletic Conference continued to show its competitiveness and parity.

The big difference with Houston in 2017, compared to 2016, is that the Cougars don’t score nearly as much as they once did, averaging just 25.3 points per game. The main cause of this: the strife at quarterback following the departure of outstanding quarterback Greg Ward Jr. After starting Kyle Allen for the first three games, Applewhite rolled with Kyle Postma. Allen struggled through the first three games, throwing four picks. Postma stepped in against Temple and guided the Cougars to a meager 20-point output. But Postma provided something different than Allen, and that was a mobile threat. Postma actually led the Cougars in rushing yards and attempts by a large amount, rushing for 81 yards on 15 attempts. Through the air, he isn’t terribly explosive but is perfectly capable of running the offense and making the correct throws.

Postma has many weapons on the outside, like Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar. Bonner is the Cougars’ leader in receiving yards, touchdowns and receptions. Dunbar and Keith Corbin are the deep threats, averaging 12 and 24 yards per catch, respectively. Duke Catalon and Dillon Birden are the two lead backs out of the backfield, combining for 327 yards and 4.5 yards per carry.

Defensively, UH is still stout as ever, only surrendering 14 points per game. Led by phenomenal defensive lineman Ed Oliver, Houston is formidable on that side of the ball. But Oliver suffered a knee injury last week, and is a game-time decision. You don’t want to root for injuries, but Oliver’s absence would have an enormous effect on the game. The Cougars are good in the back end, but vulnerable. UH also can be exploited on the ground, especially with the potential absence of Oliver. SMU has run the ball very well of late, and the Ponies will need big wins out of the three-headed monster of Braeden West, Ke’Mon Freeman and Xavier Jones, who seem to be getting better and better each week as a trio.

Hicks has been substantially improving, and the Mustangs will need a big effort from him to take down Houston. If he can continue to protect the ball and find his playmakers Sutton, Quinn and James Proché, the absence of Oliver can be taken advantage of even more with the physical run game of SMU. Even if Oliver plays, there is no way he is close to 100 percent, so SMU needs to get push up front and protect Hicks.

With a defensive front that is really coming on, Malone is gaining more and more confidence in dropping more men in coverage as Lawler, Dimarya Mixon and the rest of the front line puts more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The health of Wyatt will be key, and he is expected to play Saturday. He was badly missed against UConn and his return will be welcome. The rest of the young secondary will need to play disciplined and not blow any coverages or assignments, a problem that has continued to appear, especially against TCU and UConn. If SMU can limit the big plays and collapse the pocket on Postma and make him uncomfortable, the Mustang defense will give the team a chance to win.

Overall, the No. 3 scoring offense in the nation will be put to a big test against a good defense, and SMU will have some trouble scoring, but won’t be shut down by any means. This offense can be slowed down, but not stopped. There are simply too many weapons and threats. This game will be on the defense to hold its own against an inconsistent Cougar offense. I think the defense will make enough plays to contain Houston, and the Mustangs will make a statement road win against Houston, moving to 5-1 on the season.

Nate’s Take: SMU 35 UH 30

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