PonyFans.com is proud to have 18-year-old Nate as a guest columnist. This week, Nate reviews the Mustangs' heartbreaker against Cincinnati and previews Saturday's game against Houston.
|Nate says that defensive end Delontae Scott and the rest of the SMU defensive front will have a huge challenge trying to contain Houston quarterback DEriq King (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.)
SMU is coming off one of the more gut-wrenching losses in recent memory, a 26-20 overtime loss at the hands of Cincinnati. While this one certainly stung for all involved, there were many important takeaways from this game.
This was one of the finer performances from an SMU defense. It didn’t receive much help, as Cincy dominated the time of possession battle, 35 minutes to 25, and that discrepancy was more noticeable in the first half. One thing the defense did extremely well was take advantage of opportunities. It was a bit of a “bend but don’t break” style of defense, with multiple takeaways in the red zone — an encouraging sign of playmaking on the part of SMU.
On top of that, SMU held one of the top rushing attacks in the American Athletic Conference to just 125 rushing yards. The front seven played quite a game for SMU — some notable names from the day were Jake Hall (two tackles for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery) and Delontae Scott (one tackle for loss, and put constant pressure on the quarterback). Kyran Mitchell was one of the best players on the field at all times, as he was all over the field with 10 tackles, two of those for loss, and a sack. This defense has improved week after week, and holding Cincinnati’s run game to 125 yards is a heck of an effort. Down the stretch, the defense tired a bit, but it did its job on the final drive. Cincinnati just made several great plays and the refs missed several blatant holding penalties on the Bearcats on that final drive with the SMU front four getting lots of pressure. Ultimately, Cincy tied it and sent it to overtime, but the defense was far from the reason this game went down as a loss.
Offensively, this was a challenging game for SMU, especially early on. At halftime it was 7-7 and the only touchdown SMU had scored came after a fumble recovery taken by SMU deep inside the red zone, providing an extremely short field for the offense. That being said, on the first play, Ben Hicks hit Reggie Roberson on a perfect fade ball and Roberson made a heck of a catch over the top. Roberson has been growing into a dependable option for SMU, and his improvement has meant a lot to the production of guys like James Proché, who benefits from the attention defenses spend on Roberson. Roberson finished the day with 147 yards and two touchdowns. But in the second half, things picked up for SMU when the offense began to pick up the tempo. SMU still struggled to finish drives, but the offense in the second half was night and day compared to what was seen in the first half, when drives repeatedly went nowhere.
Overall, say what you want about Hicks and his pick-six that cost SMU the game (his fifth pick-six of the season), but given the circumstances, 328 yards and two touchdowns against a top-five defense is quite the game for him. He had an offensive line with many holes in it that struggled to protect, and most importantly couldn’t run the ball at all. This is back-to-back weeks the running game has been nonexistent and it is putting too much stress on Hicks to do everything through the air. The running game added up to an abysmal 23 yards on 24 carries, less than one yard per carry.
Given these circumstances, Hicks had a solid game. That being said, his completion percentage was low again (51 percent), and the pick-six that cost the game was a painfully bad throw. Proché was coming across on a drag route on a third and short, and had the separation he needed Cincinnati sophomore safety James Wiggins. Hicks just threw the ball with poor placement, putting it way behind Proché and right into the arms of Wiggins, and that was the ball game.
This game drastically hurt any chance SMU had of making noise in the conference championship race or even making a bowl game, but the strides this program and team has made since the disaster that took place in Denton eight weeks ago are more than evident.
SMU’s bear of a schedule continues, this time with a 7-1 No. 17 Houston team coming to Dallas this week. This very well could be the best offense SMU faces all year; as a matter of fact, it likely is. The Cougars are an elite offense, the second-highest scoring offense in the country at 49.8 points per game.
Offensively, the Cougars are just incredible. UH head coach Major Applewhite has the seventh-ranked passing offense and No. 12-ranked rushing offense in the country (in terms of yards per game). Leading this offense is another incredibly athletic and dynamic quarterback from a long lineage of these types of signal callers at Houston, D’Eriq King. King has been putting up video game-like numbers. Through the air, he has more than 2,400 yards and 28 touchdowns and only five interceptions, all on an outstanding 64 percent completion percentage. He isn’t just a quarterback who sits in the pocket and picks defenses apart, either. He is one of the most dangerous dual threats out there, adding 413 yards and 11 more touchdowns on the ground. King’s numbers really are silly, averaging nearly five touchdowns per game.
King’s weapons on the outside are diverse and numerous. He has many deep threats from which to choose. Five different receivers have caught a touchdown of 50 yards or more (and there were a couple others in the 40s). His favorite target is leading receiver Marquez Stevenson, with more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns. Stevenson is the most targeted receiver and is clearly the No. 1 option. A couple others to watch for are Keith Corbin (27 catches for 509 yards and seven touchdowns) and Courtney Lark (32 receptions, 509 receiving yards, five touchdowns). These are the main weapons on the outside, but even beyond these three, King has a litany of talented receivers. On the ground, besides King, Houston’s leading rusher is Patrick Carr, who has 475 rushing yards on the year fir an average of about six yards per carry. But while Houston runs the ball at a high clip, it is clear that the Cougars want to spread out defenses and launch a full-scale air raid. Regardless of the game’s outcome, this will be a wildly entertaining offensive watch purely as a football fan.
Defensively, the Cougars can be had. Most of Houston’s games have resulted in shootouts. Objectively, Houston surrenders more than 30 points per game, so it can certainly be had. The Cougars’ weakness lies in the secondary. They have had difficulty defending the pass, giving up almost 330 yards per game through the air at a 62 percent completion percentage. Part of this is due to teams having to only pass to keep up with the UH offense because they’re down by a lot, but it is still evident Houston struggles to defend the pass. Up front, obviously the headliner is Ed Oliver, the likely top-five pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Oliver is a phenomenal talent. He can simply do it all and his comparisons to Aaron Donald are more than justified. On the season, Oliver has an eye-popping 13.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and 51 tackles (which is incredible for a defensive tackle). He is a flat-out stud who plays with an incredibly high motor no matter what.
“He just moves so well. He's so active and the really impressive thing about Ed is he plays really hard, know what I mean?” Dykes said when asked about King. “You can tell he really likes football. His effort is always good. I really respect the way he plays the game. That's the biggest thing that stands out.”
For an SMU offensive front that has had its share of issues lately, this is not the time for an All-American like Oliver to be on the slate. Teams have had success running the ball, but not a ton, as Houston gives up roughly 3.7 yards per carry. This doesn’t bode terribly well for an offense that has rushed for 37 and 23 yards the last two weeks. Another playmaker to look for is leading tackler Austin Robinson, who also leads the team in sacks with four.
This is just simply a tough matchup for SMU. SMU’s defense has been playing at a much higher level lately, and the improvement is there. This UH offense is just simply too much, and the SMU offense has struggled way too much to even think about being able to keep pace with UH in the track meet this figures to be. SMU’s best chance figures to lie in its offense controlling the clock and sustaining drives. Make it into a “keep away” game of sorts. Keep UH’s offense off the field as much as possible, let the defense rest up and be able to keep up with the high-flying Cougar offense. However, I don’t think Hicks and Co. will be able to control the ball enough as SMU would like to, and Houston will light up the scoreboard. This is simply a mismatch for the Ponies. This one will be close early, yet Houston’s talent and speed will prevail.
Nate’s Take: Houston 52, SMU 27