Pony NATE-tion: Mustangs playing for bowl eligibility
Mustangs, Golden Hurricane kick off at 6:30 Saturday
Posted on 10/03/2019 by PonyFans.com
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PonyFans.com is proud to have 18-year-old Nate back as a guest columnist. This week, Nate reviews last week's lopsided win over South Florida, and looks ahead to Saturday's matchup against Tulsa.

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.)

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Say hello to your nationally ranked SMU Mustangs.

The Ponies are 5-0 and ranked for the first time since 1986, as they checked in at No. 24 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Anyone who tells you they saw this coming is lying, as SMU has been dominant through five weeks. Any concerns of a letdown following the huge win over TCU were squashed as SMU obliterated USF, 48-21. It wasn’t even as close as the score indicates, as the Mustangs scored the first 41 points of the game.

The offense was great again, and it started with the offensive line again. Quarterback Shane Buechele never was sacked, and the running game was dominant. I strongly recommend going to find the highlights of this game online and simply watching this team block, both on the outside and up front. It truly is a pleasure to watch this unit work over defensive fronts snap after snap.

South Florida’s defense was on its heels all day long as the Ponies racked up 245 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Running back Xavier Jones was electric again, with 155 yards on 10 yards per carry as he upped his absurd touchdown total to 11 (10 rushing, one receiving) through just five games. It also can’t go unsaid that offensive line coach A.J. Ricker has done a phenomenal job with big boys up front, especially following a disastrous and injury-filled 2018 season.

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Buechele continued his great work, completing 84 percent of his passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns, capped with a share of the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week Award. There are two things which continue to stick out about what has changed in this offense due to Buechele:

• The first is his accuracy and how that has helped improve SMU’s third down offense so much. Third down is the “money down” for all offenses. If a team isn’t moving the chains, the offense is not going to sustain drives and is not going to score points. SMU is converting 50.6 percent of its third downs, ranking 16th nationally. Converting third downs is foundational to good offense and the Ponies have been elite in that respect.

• The other improvement has been his deep ball. Per profootballfocus.com, Buechele has been dazzlingly accurate on the deep ball. Defenses always need to be wary of the deep ball, as he has a 110.6 passer rating on passes of 20 or more yards with an adjusted completion percentage of 61.3. Of his passing totals, 654 yards and three of his touchdowns have come on the deep ball, which accounts for nearly half of his passing yards. A lot of credit is due to his duo of über-talented wideouts who can take the top off the defense at any time as James Proché and Reggie Roberson have proven to be one of the best duos in the nation.

The defense was incredible and put all sorts of pressure on USF quarterback Jordan McCloud, as the Mustangs racked up a program-record 10 sacks on the day, to go along with 13 tackles for loss. The defensive front had USF under siege all day long and it was relentless.

Linebacker Richard McBryde, the Auburn transfer and now the Mustangs’ leading tackler, has stepped up in a huge way following the loss for the season of Richard Moore. McBryde has been a godsend for the defense as there has been plenty of attrition to the linebacker position.

“You’ve got to have somebody that can step up when one of your best players goes down,” head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We’re not going to replace Richard Moore, but Richard McBryde has done a great job stepping in there and doing the very best he can to help our defense.”

Safety Rodney Clemons was also key for the Ponies, as he came up with two interceptions, the first of which couldn’t have come at a better time as SMU had just taken a 7-0 lead and the Bulls were in the red zone, trying to tie the game. A jump ball was thrown into the end zone and Clemons did a great job of high-pointing the ball and coming up with a great interception to swing the momentum to the Mustangs for good. His performance earned him the accolade of Pro Football Focus’ National Team of the Week.

The Ponies now have scored 40 or more points in four straight contests and are winning by an average of 17.8 points per game. The offense is scoring almost 45 points per game, ranking ninth nationally. The defense has been stingy and has had a knack for taking the ball away, ranking 13th in the country in takeaways, and leads the country in sacks with 25 (an absurd five per game). Lastly, the coaching staff has done a marvelous job getting this team focused and prepared each week, with the constant message of “going 1-0 every week.”

“I think if you haven’t been ranked in 33 years, it’s clearly a significant step in the right direction for our program so it’s a big deal. I think it’s a bigger deal for our fans than it is for us,” Dykes said. “Our mantra is always just play one play at a time and get through one day at a time and win one game at a time and the rest of it takes care of itself.”

A win Saturday at home against Tulsa would pay dividends for SMU, which would be 6-0 heading into the bye week leading up to a big home matchup against a rock-solid Temple team. One interesting tidbit pointed out on PonyFans.com’s Twitter page: a year ago, SMU faced Tulsa with a chance for bowl eligibility on the last game of the season. The difference this year? SMU plays Tulsa for a chance at bowl eligibility, except this matchup comes in the first week of October, rather than late November. It will be quite the day to be on the Hilltop, as the Mustang faithful will have the chance to cheer on a ranked squad for the first time in 33 years.

The Golden Hurricane is not a bad team by any stretch and has improved greatly upon a very poor 2018. Tulsa carries a 2-2 record into the game, but the two losses came in games that there was no shame in losing. It was taken down handily by Michigan State, 28-7, in East Lansing, Michigan, in the first week and fell to Oklahoma State at home, 40-21, two weeks later. The Hurricane does have a win against a solid Wyoming team, a 24-21 slugfest. Either way, this Tulsa team is more than beatable.

Offensively, Tulsa has struggled thus far: 21.5 points per game places it 109th in the nation. The run game has struggled as well, as Tulsa is ranked 118th in the nation in rushing offense. Head coach Philip Montgomery’s team primarily leans on the passing game led by quarterback and Baylor transfer Zach Smith who has completed just under 60 percent of his passes for 1018 yards for five touchdowns and a pick.

One thing that jumps out: Smith has been sacked a lot. He has been taken down 16 times this season, including a six-sack outing against MSU. SMU’s pass rush has done nothing but generate pressure, so look for defensive coordinator Kevin Kane to continue to lean on his front seven that currently leads the FBS in sacks.

While it has struggled, Tulsa’s running game has been led by Shamari Brooks, who has 314 yards on the year for about four yards per carry. TK Wilkerson and Corey Taylor II are other weapons Tulsa uses out of the backfield.

One name to watch: preseason All-American Athletic Conference wideout Keylon Stokes, who lit SMU up for 140 yards a year ago. The junior is off to a solid start to 2019 with 301 yards on 16 yards per catch and a pair of touchdowns. But Dallas native Sam Crawford, Jr., has been the leading receiver thus far in 2019, as the sophomore who didn’t record a catch in 2018 has 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns acting as a deep threat for the Golden Hurricane.

While Tulsa does have some viable weapons, I think that SMU is more than equipped to handle the Golden Hurricane, and it will start with the pass rush. Continued production up front will go a long way to help the Ponies move to 6-0. The Golden Hurricane will spend the evening trying to get the ball out quickly to its playmakers like Taylor, Stokes and Crawford.

The Hurricane defense has been the backbone of the team, limiting opposing teams to just 26 points per game, thereby keeping Tulsa in the game. Its passing defense has been significantly better than its rushing defense, as it has surrendered 4.7 yards per carry. This is certainly something SMU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will try to exploit in his game plan, given the early-season production from his red-hot runner, Xavier Jones.

The defense does not create many splashy plays like sacks and takeaways but does a good job of keeping the offense in front of it, as Tulsa has only given up roughly 200 passing yards per game, an impressive number in today’s air-it-out age of football. However, the Golden Hurricane has gotten to the quarterback just three times in four games. Even though they haven’t surrendered much through the air, I really love the matchup between SMU’s physical offensive line against Tulsa’s front that hasn’t created any pressure and has struggled to stop the run.

Cooper Edmiston is the leader tackler at middle linebacker with 34 on the season and has been a strong leader for this unit. Teammate Trevis Gipson has accounted for all three of Tulsa’s sacks this season and has given offenses fits with quarterback pressures. The 6-foot-4-inch defensive end from Cedar Hill provides a rangy and athletic pass rush threat off the edge the Mustangs’ offensive line will need to prepare for in order to protect Buechele and open running lanes.

One weakness to look out for: Tulsa’s otherwise-stout defense has given up a score on every single first possession of all its first four games. Watch for Buechele to take some deep shots early and use his accurate deep ball to prevent the Golden Hurricane from settling into a groove.

Montgomery does recognize the challenge SMU presents, and hopes his team will be ready for the hottest team in the AAC.

“They’ve played great football all the way across as you look at their schedule and what they’ve done,” he said. “They really got after South Florida last week. Really, the game was over pretty early in the game, in my opinion, and so they’re playing extremely well.”

I find this to be another mismatch for SMU. Tulsa simply does not have the firepower to keep up with SMU’s offense, and while Tulsa’s defense has performed admirably, there is only so much it can do if it does not create explosive plays like sacks and takeaways, especially knowing that the Mustang offense has carved up much tougher defenses like TCU’s.

SMU takes care of the ball and has far too many weapons for the Golden Hurricane to limit it. At least 30 points should be enough for SMU to win Saturday, and SMU’s defense also matches up quite well with the Tulsa offense. Expect another big day from the Ponies’ defensive front, which will face another offensive line that has struggled through four games.

This matchup sets up nicely for SMU, and the Mustangs will beat Tulsa down both offensively and defensively. The Mustangs will be 6-0 heading into the bye week after a comfortable win and a little bit of redemption from a year ago.

Nate’s take: SMU 41 Tulsa 20

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