Game 7 Preview – SMU

The Houston Cougars head up I-45 to Dallas on Thursday for a key Conference USA showdown against the Mustangs of SMU. The winner of this game has been the CUSA's Western Division Champion for the past three seasons. Game time is set for 7pm (CST) and will be shown nationally on Fox Sports Net.

The Cougars and Ponies are headed in opposite directions as far as momentum is concerned as Houston brings a 2-0 conference record (3-3 overall) after defeating UAB this past Saturday 39-17 for their third consecutive victory. SMU on the other hand, is 1-1 in league play (2-4 overall) after an embarrassing 27-26 loss at Tulane last Saturday.

The Mustangs are coached by June Jones who is 102-73 overall in 14 years as a head coach. The famed ‘Run & Shoot’ expert was hired from Hawaii after cashing in on a magical 2007 season which saw the ‘Rainbow Warriors’ make the Sugar Bowl (where they lost 41-10 to the University of Georgia) after a 12-0 regular season. This is his fifth season coaching the ‘Pretty Ponies’ and with a 26-32 record, the outlook is pretty bleak on the Hilltop from a fan’s perspective as the Mustangs have a 6-15 non conference record in Jones five seasons.

Through six games, the Mustangs are 92nd in the nation in scoring (23 points per game), and 90th in total offense (367.8 yards per game). For an offense that’s based as much on the passing game as SMU’s is, averaging only 253 passing yards per game (45th in the nation) just isn’t going to cut it. As with any offense, this R&S scheme is based on the play of its quarterback. Garrett Gilbert, The Gatorade National Player of the Year out of Lake Travis High in Austin, enrolled at the University of Texas in 2009, seeing little playing time behind Colt McCoy until having to play in the 2010 BCS National Championship game after McCoy hurt his shoulder early in the first quarter. Gilbert played as well as could be expected, leading a second half comeback before doing what all inexperienced QBs usually do; he turned the ball over. He started all 12 games of a frustrating 2010 season in which his performance on the field was marked by inconsistency. After taking a medical redshirt for the 2011 season (with a hurt shoulder after the first two games) he graduated and enrolled at SMU over the off season. So far through six games he is showing the same problems as he did at UT; decision making and accuracy, or lack thereof.  On the season he’s completing less than 50 percent of this throws. He has a powerful arm in which he is capable of rifling balls into small pockets, but he has a tendency to lock onto receivers and force balls into coverage.

The Mustangs offensive problems just aren’t on Gilbert alone, as his receivers really haven’t stepped up to the plate so far this season. Four receivers have at least 19 receptions each, but after that it drops off to 9 as the depth at the position isn’t too great. Their outside receivers; Der’rikk Thompson (X) and Keenan Holman (Z) both have 19 receptions with Thompson at 252 yards receiving with two TDs. Holman has 218 yards and one TD. Their slot receivers are who Gilbert looks for when he gets into trouble as Jeremy Johnson (Y) leads the team with 37 receptions for 371 yards (with two TDs) while Darius Johnson is second with 24 receptions for 235 yards with one TD. Johnson has only played in four of the Mustangs six games so far on the season and will be a game time decision on whether he will play or not (due to an undisclosed injury). None of the four mentioned starters average more than Thompson’s 13.3 yards per reception. This has been a major reason why the Mustangs offense has come to a grinding halt in certain games – their receivers have been unable to create separation from opposing defensive backs for the most part.This is key as the same YAC (yards after the catch) yardage that is required from the Cougars receivers in order to make their offense successful, simply has not been created off of the shorter passing routes in Jones’ Run & Shoot offense.

This could be an ideal game for Cougars defensive coordinator, Jamie Bryant, to possibly play his corner backs in more man coverage, particularly Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates (at the spot opposite of D.J. Hayden). The Cougars pass defense is playing better as of late as despite allowing opponents to pass for nearly 288 yards per game on the season, which ranks them at 114th nationally.

 Rushing wise, the Mustangs are averaging only 114.5 yards per game (104th nationally), which is surprising considering running back Zach Line has 18 career 100 yard rushing games highlighted by rushing for 135 and 104 yards against Baylor and Texas A&M this season. While neither of those teams will be confused with great defensive play, they at least have BCS caliber athletes he was running against. The burly 6-foot-1, 230 pound senior is averaging 100.7 rushing yards per game this season but only has scored three rushing touch downs. Teams are able to load the box against the physical between-the-tackles runner as the aforementioned receivers aren’t gaining much separation so defenses can run down that extra safety, which is precisely what Cougars Free safety Trevon Stewart will probably do as his diminutive size won’t persuade the true freshman from heavy contact. On a side note; Stewart left the UAB game with a lower leg injury but looks as if he should be back this week. How strong safeties Colton Valencia and Kent Brooks (who split snaps) handle rotating to a single-safety look in coverage, will determine how much Stewart will creep into the box as Jones will always be a pass first play-caller.

Whenever a defense faces a down hill power back, how the middle linebacker sheds blocks and meets him in the hole will determine how successful the rushing attack is. Basically what that means is, Mr. Line, meet Mr. Daniels, as in Cougars Mike linebacker Everett Daniels (who will be making a homecoming appearance of sorts as the senior is a resident of Sachse which is a suburb of Dallas). The six foot, 225 pound first year starter (who is fifth on the team with 45 tackles) has been playing better as of late and should enjoy the physical challenge that awaits him Thursday night. Sam and Will linebackers Phillip Steward and Derrick Mathews also can’t wait to join the party themselves as they have been the heart and soul of the Cougars defense as they are first and second in tackles with 72 and 56 respectively. It will be interesting to see how Bryant uses the two aggressive backers as either could be lined up along the edge (in a 5-2 front) on a blitz on one play while blitzing between the A-gap on the next. Steward is tied at fifth in the nation with 12.5 tackles for loss while Mathews is a hair behind him at 12 TFL (which ranks him seventh). Their game is chaos and Bryant is still learning how to use the two, whether they are attacking via a zone blitz, or in coverage. The Cougars run game defense has improved as the season has progressed but they still allow opponents to run on them for a not so hot 180 yards per game average, which is 84th nationally. They had been allowing over 200 yards per game, however, before their current three game winning streak.

How the Mustangs handle the chaos to be created by Mathews and Steward and company will be determined by the Ponies offensive line, which has played quite uhhh ‘offensive’ to begin the season. SMU finished last season with five seniors who had a combined 221 starts amongst them. Entering this season, on the other hand, was a mere 36. Right guard Blake McJunkin is the only experienced lineman with 26 career starts (mostly at center during the 2008 and 2010 seasons). Right tackle Bryan Collins has only nine career starts spread out over three seasons. The Ponies’ center, Taylor Lasecki, is a 288 pound redshirt freshman. The left side of their line includes two new starters – Jordan Free at left guard and Ben Gottschalk at left tackle. Both are upperclassmen who have seen playing time over their careers, just not as starters. As a line, they have allowed 15 sacks through six games (88th nationally), though some of those have been on Gilbert for holding onto the ball too long.

The Cougars defensive front four has seen a few changes over the past few games, and have improved as well. Defensive end Lloyd Allen is listed as doubtful for the game while defensive tackle Radermon Scypion is listed as a starter versus the Mustangs (though he didn’t play versus UAB). End Zeke Riser is listed as questionable, though Cougars head Coach Tony Levine says he should be good to go. Replacing Allen and Scypion last week were Kelvin King (at end) and true freshman Tomme Mark (at tackle). Joining Riser and King in the rotation at end are youngsters William Moore and Desmond Pulliam. Moore had a nice game last week against UAB by taking advantage of his speed rush at his light 205 pounds as he was awarded with half a sack and tackle for loss. Making contributions inside at tackle for the first time all season (in Scypion’s absence) were Jeremiah Farley and Eric Braswell as both produced a sack and one tackle for loss. It will be important that Mark, Scypion (if he plays), Joey Mbu (the other starting defensive tackle) and reserve tackle (and last seasons starter) Dominic Miller all shed their blocks from the Mustangs offensive linemen and jam up the line of scrimmage, allowing the Cougars linebackers in free to make tackles for loss and/or harass Gilbert into making mistakes in the passing game. In using players such as Moore at end, along with converting former ends Farley and Braswell inside to tackle, it’s apparent that Bryant trusts his players can use their speed to disrupt opposing offensive game plans.

Speaking of defense,  the Mustangs under defensive coordinator Tom Mason, have shut out two opponents (Stephen F. Austin and UTEP) for the first time since 1983. He’s in his fifth season on the Hilltop and has improved their overall defensive rankings from 116th nationally (in 2007, the year prior to his arrival) to 26th last season. This season they are ranked 75th overall as the staff is still learning their players’ strengths and weaknesses, especially in the secondary which is young. In their 3-4 base front, it’s all about the productivity of their linebackers. While Inside Mike LB Taylor Reed is second on the team with 37 tackles, he has 340 career tackles (ranking fourth among all active FBS players and his 215 solo tackles is second among active players). The Ponies other inside linebacker (on the weakside which they call their Buck LB) is Randall Joyner. Remember his name because he’s all over the field for the Ponies, as he leads the team with 48 tackles (including two for loss), has seven passes defended, three interceptions and has both forced a recovered a fumble on the season. Their best overall linebacker may be Outside Will linebacker Ja’Gared Davis. The six-foot-one inch, 235 pound senior has amassed 35 tackles (including three for loss), five passes defended, one sack, interception, forced and recovered fumble (which he returned for 35 yards for a TD versus (in their 52-0 victory over SFA earlier this season).

Mason will probably have these three keying in on Cougars running back, Charles Sims, who leads CUSA and is eighth nationally as he is averaging nearly 130 yards per game on the ground. Last week versus UAB, Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush showed a lot of patience in trying to pound Sims between the tackles in their inside zone blocking scheme. Before a 29 yard run on a trick play the final play of the half, Sims rushed for only 52 yards on 18 carries which only averaged out to 2.9 yards per carry. The continued pounding not only opened up the play action passing game, but the strategy also wore down the smaller Blazer defensive front. Sims finished the game (or third quarter) with 128 yards on 26 carries. In going with what works, Bush will probably approach this game in much the same manner in establishing Sims along with fellow back Kenneth Farrow. The continued pounding has allowed both Sims and Farrow to average more than six yards per carry so far this season. Bush will also get the two backs involved in the passing game, as both can move out to the slot where the Coogs OC will look to isolate the backs on Mustang Outside Sam (or strongside) linebacker Stephon Sanders, who may be the weakness of the Ponies linebackers as he only has amassed 18 tackles on the season thus far.

When the Cougars running game is established, the passing game is much more effective as redshirt sophomore David Piland (who is one of six Cougars returning to play in front of friends and family in Dallas) and his receivers have been gaining more rhythm as the season has progressed. While Bush loves to establish the ground game early, he usually begins the Cougars early offensive possessions with their quick passing game by using Piland’s quick release in their multiple no-huddle spread offense. With the defense on its heals, Sims can easier gash defenses up the middle. Once linebackers start stepping up to stop Sims, Piland uses play action (sometimes on a roll out) to connect with his receivers in the intermediate areas of opponents zone defenses, especially slot receivers Daniel Spencer and Ronnie Williams (with 415 and 137 yards receiving respectively). Both have been injured and not contributing much as of late so true freshman Larry McDuffy and junior Shane Ros have stepped up their games. Both speedy receivers are second and third on the team in yards per reception with 16.1 and 15.9 respectively (fellow true freshman Andrew Rodriquez leads with a 16.4 average through only two games but has been out with a hamstring injury). Many of these yards come on the quick slant off of the aforementioned play-action fake where the linebackers and safeties are caught looking in the backfield.

If there is one aspect of the passing game that Piland is still struggling with, it’s still the deep passing game. The young Cougars QB still hasn’t been able to connect on a deep post with outside receivers Dewayne Peace or Deontay Greenberry though Peace does lead the team in receiving yards with 417 (two more than Spencer’s 415). And neither of the Coogs outside receivers average more than 11 yards per reception. Their backups, Mark Roberts and Xavier Maxwell have been ineffective due in large part to injuries. Veteran Isaiah Sweeney was also looked to make an impact in this area but has been out for the entire season with a broken foot. As with the patience in the running game, with continued work, look for this area will improve as well. Former Cougars great Case Keenum continually improved his deep passing game as his career progressed, and I look for the same to happen with Piland as he definitely has the arm to make all of the throws needed in order to be successful.

Unfortunately for the Mustangs, their biggest weakness correlates with the strength for the Cougars offense. SMU is playing short handed in the secondary as they lost their second preseason starter when three-year starting safety Ryan Smith went down with a season-ending injury against TCU (three weeks ago). Sophomore J.R. Richardson, slotted as a starter at corner in the preseason, got injured in training camp and is out for the year. Replacing Richardson is new starter Chris Parks, who has played over the course of his first two seasons on special teams. The junior has 22 tackles on the season. Kenneth Acker comes as close to a shut down corner as the Mustangs have. In his second season as a starter, the junior has seven passes defended along with two interceptions (one which was returned for a TD against SFA). Replacing Smith at strong safety is Shakiel Randolph. The redshirt freshman has seven tackles and defended three passes in three games. The leader of their secondary is free safety Jay Scott. The 210 pound junior from Houston’s Strake Jesuit is second on the team in both tackles (39) and passes defended (5). He also has one interception and has both forced and recovered fumble.

The responsibility for making the secondary’s job easier will be the Mustangs defensive front. In their 3-4 scheme, their two defensive ends and nose guard’s main responsibility will be to tie up the Cougars offensive linemen so they cannot peal off and get to the second and third levels in the Coogs various screen passing game. The starters up front for the Ponies include nose guard Torian Pittman, defensive ends Margus Hunt and Kevin Grenier. The three combine to average about 280 pounds and with either Reed or Davis lining up in a pseudo four man front their line only averages to about 270 pounds per man. Pittman and Hunt are both multiple year starters and know the tricks of the trade. Hunt, who at six-foot-eight, was named the number one “athletic freak” by CBSSports.com this past off-season.

Responsible for containing that freak will be a stout Cougars offensive line that is playing with more confidence each game. Across the line from left to right are Rowdy Harper, Ty Cloud, Kevin Forsch, Jacolby Ashworth and Ralph Oragwu. After leaving last week’s game due to dehydration issues, Forsch should be back starting at center. It’s fun to watch how the line blocks in both man and its zone schemes, especially when they get out and pull (in man blocking) and get out to the linebackers and safeties on the various types of screen passes the offense uses. The unit has led an offense that ranks 11th nationally in total offense (534 yards per game), sixth in passing (353) and an improving by-the-week rushing game ( 44th in rushing at 184). The offense ranks only 53rd in scoring (at 31 points per game) due to the horrible first game when they scored only 13 points versus Texas State. They also have only allowed six sacks the entire season (tied for 17th nationally). The Mustangs have sacked opposing QBs eight times in six games (100th), which does not bode well for SMU’s line in pressuring Piland.

Both head coaches look to their respective special teams units to make game changing plays in some type of capacity. The Mustangs special teams are headed by Frank Gansz Jr., considered somewhat of a guru as his father was. He is as methodical as a special teams coordinator as any in the country, and I know from experience. He was an assistant coach on UH’s staff in 1996 when I worked for the athletic department as a videographer and he used many of my end zone tight shots to break down the teams practice (and game) video. Their defensive end, Margus Hunt, has 17 career blocked kicks (10 FG, 7 PAT) which is tied for second in NCAA history. While the Cougars kickoff coverage team has been playing remarkable as of late, the Mustangs are just average (and below average on punt coverage where they allow an amazing 14.4 yards per return), and neither team has a stand out punt or kickoff returner. The Ponies have two punters, Chase Hover and Mike Loftus with neither averaging more than 42 yards per punt, while the Cougars can rely on the nations fourth leading punter, Richie Leone (who averages an outstanding 47 yards per) to ‘flip the field’ at any time. Leone led the nation last week until a 22 yarder slipped off the side of his foot against UAB, dropping him down in the rankings. The kickers for both teams had busy Saturday’s as Matt Hogan and the Ponies Hover combined to convert 10 of 12 field goals, with Hogan kicking 6 of 7 and Hover 4 of 5. Before Saturday’s game at Tulane, Hover had only converted 5 of his 12 field goals. On the season he is only 1 for 8 on kicks from 30 yards on out. June Jones confidence in his kicker (or lack thereof) could determine whether or not he goes for it late if the game is close. Coach Levine on the other hand, will have no problems with relying on Hogan, late in the game or not.

 

Another key to this game will be the same as it was for the previous three UH victories; which has been to get out to an early lead on their opponents, forcing them to all but abandon their running game. Once comfortably ahead, Bryant will unleash the hounds on SMU’s QB and the fledgling Mustang offensive line. The Ponies have been outscored 38-6 in the first quarter of their six games while finishing strong by outscoring their opponents in the fourth by a count of 54-31. The key will be to get ahead by so much that the Ponies basically give in. Taking their crowd out of the game will be no doubt help as well. The Cougars don’t want a close game in the fourth quarter as this will be only their second true road test of the season (the first being that 37-6 blowout at UCLA) and its unknown how this team will react to adversity on the road.

 

Another major key will be redzone scoring. As atrocious as the Cougars were last week (in only crossing the goal line three times out of nine redzone trips), the Mustangs are even worse.. In 19 trips to the redzone, SMU has only scored 5 TDs over the course of the season. That 26 percent TD ratio is good for dead last in the nation. Last week’s horrendous showing by the Cougars netted them at 44 percent (12 TDs in 27 trips), good for 111th. Needless to say, whoever crosses the goal line (when inside the opponents 20) more often will have the better chance at winning this game.

 

Since taking over the Mustangs, Jones has gone 0-4 against UH, losing the last three games by an average of 23 points. Overall SMU has lost the past six games to the Cougars by an average of 15 points. In an another amazing stat, the Mustangs have not defeated the Cougars in Dallas since 1992, when both were members of the old Southwest Conference. Logic would say this trend would have to end sometime soon, though unfortunately for the Mustangs it won’t be this season.

 

Final Prediction: Cougars – 34  Ponies – 17


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