Pony NATE-tion: SMU needs eliminate turnovers, establish run against UCF
Ponies have to match firepower of nation's top offense Posted on 11/02/2017 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' home game against No. 15 Central Florida. 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.)
|Nate says quarterback Ben Hicks had perhaps the best game of his SMU career against Tulsa, and that the Mustangs need to play error-free football Saturday for a chance to knock off Central Florida (photo by Patrick Kleineberg).
The Mustangs are coming off an exciting 38-34 win over Tulsa that clinched bowl eligibility as they moved to 6-2. SMU is finally going bowling again, a feat unachieved since 2012, as Chad Morris’ grand plan for the program is starting to reach its peak. SMU is in the conference race, taking a 3-1 conference record. The Mustangs torched Tulsa for 581 yards, as quarterback Ben Hicks had arguably his best game as a Mustang, throwing for 366 yards, completed a good 19 of 32 passes, and threw no interceptions. That has been the biggest improvement from 2016 to 2017 for Hicks: he is making much better decisions and is not turning the ball over. Hicks continued to feed his star receivers, Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton, who combined for 237 yards and two touchdowns. Those two are turning into the best wide receiver tandem in the country. The passing game’s effectiveness has made the running game that much more of a threat. The running back trio of Xavier Jones, Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freeman produced big plays, providing a level of explosiveness the offense hasn’t had on the ground.
Whether or not this record is misleading remains to be seen, as SMU’s six wins all have come against sub-par teams. The three conference wins have come against the bottom of the American Athletic Conference barrel. Now No. 15 UCF comes to Dallas to take on SMU on Homecoming weekend, possibly the Mustangs’ biggest home game of the year. The Knights come in undefeated, one of five remaining unbeatens in the country. UCF is averaging a jaw-dropping 51 points per game, while giving up less than 20 points per game defensively. UCF is the absolute class of the AAC and will probably end up being the Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six bowl games, barring any upsets. Looking at its schedule, UCF has murdered most everyone it has played, including a good Memphis team, as well as a 51-23 win over the Cincinnati team that took SMU to overtime.
An offense is typically close to unstoppable if there is a dominant run game. A dominant run game is the focus of the UCF offense, pounding the rock for 216 rushing yards per game, made possible by a massive stable of running backs, as five different players have at least 25 carries on the season. The best backs are Adrian Killins, Jr. (430 yards, five touchdowns), dual-threat quarterback McKenzie Milton (5.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns), Taj McGowan (eight touchdowns, 206 yards) and three other backs, each of whom has found the end zone at least twice. This amount of depth and explosiveness at the running back spot gives UCF a wealth of options, keeping its best backs fresh.
Quarterback McKenzie Milton is proving to be one of the best quarterbacks in the AAC, needing three more yards to eclipse 2,000 for the season, throwing 19 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and a stellar 72 percent completion percentage. His best target, by far, is leading receiver Tre’Quan Smith (500 yards and nine touchdowns). Dredrick Snelson and Jordan Atkins complement Smith well, combining for 664 yards and six touchdowns. This is a UCF offense that will come in firing on all cylinders, in a rhythm that no one has been able to stop.
What has made this offense so effective is a stout defense that takes advantage of mistakes, namely in the category of interceptions. The Knights’ pass rush doesn’t do much that catches the eye, but the ball-hawking UCF secondary has picked off the opposing quarterback 11 times in just seven games. Any mistake Hicks makes will be preyed upon by the Knights, whose secondary is led by Kyle Gibson, Mike Hughes and Tre Neal. The UCF defense will try to continue to plug holes and stop the run as it has all year, holding opponents to 3.7 yards per carry.
The Mustangs will have to play turnover-free football if they want any chance to upset UCF. Hicks will need to have the best game of his career and light up the scoreboard to keep up with the potent UCF offense. The receivers will perform as usual, but the running game has to show up and help sustain drives. Unfortunately, this is a defensive mismatch for the Ponies, who have struggled to stop the run against teams that run well. UCF certainly runs well and will run the ball at will. Defensive coordinator Van Malone will have to load up the box, opening up the top of the defense for the explosive UCF skill position players. SMU won’t be able to keep up with the high-powered Knight offense. I like UCF in a blowout.
Nate’s take: UCF 58, SMU 31