Why would these three upcoming games be considered the most important in program history? It's simple really; the BCS rules are stacked against non AQ (Automatic Qualifier) conference participants. The only way for a non AQ team to gain an automatic invite to a BCS bowl would be to win their conference while being ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings (or the top 16 and ranked ahead of an AQ conference team -currently there are no Big East teams ranked in the BCS top 25). The Cougars could possibly win the CUSA's Western division even with a loss to SMU (if they beat Tulsa) but a loss to the Ponies would surely kill the Cougars chances on a BCS bowl bid as they would definitely not be ranked in the top 12 or 16.
But while all of the BCS speculation is fine and dandy for the media and fans, the Cougars need to focus on beating SMU in which is sure to be an emotional day for Coog fans with ESPN ‘College Gameday' being on campus along with the game being the final for 18 seniors including record setting quarter back Case Keenum, wide receivers Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, running back Bryce Beall and linebacker Marcus McGraw.
Cougar head coach Kevin Sumlin needs to make sure his team is focused and are able to channel their collective energies on the game at hand with the whirlwind of emotion the team will surely encounter to start the game as he stated in his weekly press conference on Tuesday, "Our guys are excited for what they have accomplished already this season. They also understand what is out in front of them. I think how we approached it says a lot of how our seniors have led us over this past season and have kept the focus. The way we do things is not going to change this week. We have had great meetings and practice. We are looking forward to getting outside today and having a good practice."
The Mustangs are coached by June Jones who is 22-27 in his fourth year as their head man and 98-68 overall in this his 13th season as a collegiate head coach. He accumulated a 76-41 record at Hawaii from the 1999 through 2007 seasons before moving to SMU. Many Cougar fans will probably remember him as a former Houston pro assistant coach for three years in the mid to late 1980's (first as a wide receivers coach for the Gamblers in 1984 then as Jerry Glanville's quarter back's coach with the Oilers during the 1987 and 88 seasons). He also was a head coach in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons (1994-1996) and San Diego Chargers (1998) with a combined record of 22-36.
Offensively, Jones is mostly known for the "Run and Shoot" offenses he's implemented along all of his coaching stops. He learned the system under "Mouse" Davis when he played at Portland State during the 1975 and 76 seasons. The Mustangs average 27 points per game and total 412 yards per game of total offense (good for 48th nationally and 4th in CUSA) with 292 of those yards coming through the air and 120 on the ground. Their quarterback is J.J. McDermott who replaced last year's starter Kyle Padron in Jones ever changing game of musical quarterbacks. McDermott has completed 217 of his 365 passes for a 59 percent completion percentage. His 276 passing yards per game is second in CUSA to the Cougars Keenum (395 yards per game). Although they both pass the ball roughly the same amount, Keenum has tossed only three interceptions to McDermott's thirteen, with fourteen touchdown passes (to Keenum's nationally leading 37).
With any great offense comes wide receivers who can make plays and SMU is no different in that aspect with a plethora of game changers including Missouri City native Darius Johnson, Cole Beasley, Terrance Wilkerson and Der'rikk Thompson. Johnson and Beasley are the leading receivers with 819 and 812 yards respectively. Johnson lines up all over the field as Jones looks for mismatches, especially lining him up in the slot against opposing linebackers and/or safeties. Beasley is their true slot receiver and is great at finding holes in opponent's zone defenses as he is second in CUSA in receptions and yards per game with seven and ninety respectively. Look for Jones to try to match Beasley up against Cougars linebacker Phillip Steward as he has often covered slot receivers over the course of the year and even has three interceptions. The key for the Cougars defense will be to mix things up coverage wise, changing frequently between zone and man-to-man looks, in an effort to confuse the Ponies young quarter back. Cougar's defensive coordinator Brian Stewart told me that he has the Coogs playing man-to-man only three percent of the time this year as opposed to seven last year, "We play zone coverage with pressure. That is what we do best. The defensive backs are progressing week to week even though we didn't have DJ (Hayden) for three weeks." He said he likes the play of his ‘welter weight DB's' – Thomas Bates and Zach McMillian (both of whom have three interceptions on the season, tying them for the team lead with the aforementioned Steward). Regardless of whether or not the secondary plays zone or man, the Coogs must not allow the SMU receivers a free release off of the line of scrimmage or they will get killed as it will be too easy for the Mustangs experienced receivers to find holes in the Cougars secondary. The Cougars defensive backfield must play more aggressive this game, often jamming the receivers at the line which will throw them off of their routes, killing the timing with McDermott.
Mustang running back Zach Line puts the "run" in ‘run and shoot' to the tune of 122 rushing yards per game with a mind boggling seventeen TDs on the ground, both of which lead CUSA. Line is also a threat out of the backfield catching the ball with 15 receptions for 139 yards. The burly 230 pound between the tackler runner will be a game time decision as he is dealing with a case of turf toe. This injury could be huge for the Cougars defense, as the Ponies second leading rusher is Jared Williams, who only has 49 yards. Without Line in the backfield, the Cougars can mix up coverage's more effectively dropping eight back at times rushing with only three or four.
The Cougars don't blitz often but without a true run threat in the game for SMU, Stewart can have the defensive line "pin their ears back" and come after McDermott (whom is dealing with his own injuries to his feet and shoulder which make him statue like in the pocket). This which would be music to the ears of will (or rush) linebacker Sammy Brown. The former JC transfer, who is in his last year with the Cougars, leads the nation and CUSA in tackles for loss (TFL) with 21.5 and is 5th nationally (and 2nd in CUSA) with 9.5 sacks. Coach Sumlin said he expects Brown to play in this game after only playing a quarter at Tulane last week due to a sprained ankle. Look for senior mike line backer and defensive team leader Marcus McGraw to meet Line (or any other running back) in the Ponies backfield a few times, as he times his run fits perfectly when called upon to run blitz quite often (as his 8 TFL on the season would attest). Looking to combat Brown, McGraw and the rest of the Cougars front seven is one of the nations biggest and most experienced offensive lines in the nation. They average 6-3, 308 pounds per man across the line, led by senior left tackle Kelvin Beachum. One promising note for the Cougars d-line is the fact that the Ponies O-line have allowed 21 sacks on the season, 65th in the nation, so they are susceptible to pressure. The Cougars offensive line, on the other hand, has allowed a mere eleven sacks on the season, or one for every forty one pass attempts.
The Ponies 3-4 defense, headed by 4th year defensive coordinator Tom Mason, will have their hands full, as the Mustangs allow an average of 23.3 points per game (44th nationally) while allowing 345 total yards (215 through the air). While the Cougars defensive scheme is designed to put Brown in one-on-one matchups on the edge, the Ponies generate their pressure via defensive end Taylor Thompson. The 6-foot-6, 285 pounder leads the team and is third in CUSA with seven sacks. Coach Sumlin describes the former tight end as "one of the finer defensive ends in our league." Mike linebacker Taylor Reed leads the team with 74 total tackles and is often in the middle of every Ponies stop, as is the Cougars McGraw. The ‘Sammy Brown' of the Ponies would be will linebacker Ja'Gared Davis. Much like Brown, the 6-foot-1 225 pounder uses his speed to create havoc whether it be blitzing (9 TFL and 3.5 sacks) or dropping him back in coverage (2 interceptions).
As part of the Cougars offensive game plan, look for co-coordinators Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips to "unleash the three headed beast" as in the trio of running backs Charles Sims, Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes. Sims is coming off of a 210 yard rushing game on only ten carries with three carries of over 50 yards. Beall carried once (for a twelve yard TD) after being out for the previous three games due to a hamstring injury and Hayes also sat out last week's game due to a heavy work load. The Ponies are stout up front, especially nose guard Torian Pittman and his 295 pound plus frame and allow only 129 yards per game (41st nationally) but with all three running backs back, look for the Coogs to eclipse the 150 yard mark – in which they are 19-3 under coach Sumlin.
The defensive backfield for the Mustangs is led by free safety Chris Banjo and strong safety Ryan Smith with 63 and 53 tackles respectively. Their two starting corner backs, Richard Crawford and Kenneth Acker, have only one interception each. The Ponies soft zone and lack of pressure has led them to only four interceptions on the season which is 112th in the nation, as compared to the thirteen for the Cougars (15th nationally).
Coach Sumlin complimented the Mustangs special teams and their coordinator (former Cougar special teams coordinator Frank Gansz Jr.) when he said "We are quite similar in our approach special-teams wise. They are aggressive just like we are. Their first or second in the league in punt returns and they block a lot of kicks just like we do (laughing)." SMU is tied for eighth in the nation with four blocked kicks, all by reserve defensive end Margus Hunt which is easy to see considering his 6-foot-8 295 frame. Crawford leads CUSA with his 13.5 punt return average with one returned for a touchdown. Cougars receiver Patrick Edwards would lead CUSA with his 15 yard average but doesn't have enough returns to qualify, much like punter Richie Leone with his 44.5 yard average. It would be magical if Cougar receiver Tyron Carrier could break his tie with former Clemson running back C.J. Spiller and return his eighth kickoff return for a touchdown.
Among the many keys for the Cougars stopping the Ponies, turnovers will be the most important as the Cougars have a turnover margin of plus .80 which is 12th nationally. McDermott often stares down his receivers and forces throws, making it easy for opponents to intercept his passes. This will be key as the Cougars 13 interceptions have proven they are ball hawks in the backfield. Houston plays a bend but don't break style of defense, allowing an average of 393 yards per game (209 through the air). Under Stewart's cover-2 zone looks, the plan will be for the Cougars defensive backs to allow the Mustangs receivers to catch the ball in front of them, wrap up and allow no YAC (yard after catch) yardage while also allowing nothing deep. The winning formula for the Cougars all year long has been for the defense to ratchet up the defensive pressure after gaining a huge lead and Saturday's game will be no different as SMU will not be able to handle the Cougars high flying offense as they are averaging 628.8 yards per game this season, the most in NCAA history (surpassing the 1989 and 1990 Cougar teams whom averaged 625 and 587 yards respectively). The Cougars are also scoring 54.7 points per game, the most since Army (56.0 ppg) in 1944.Final prediction – Houston – 45 SMU - 24