Game Preview: SMU vs. East Carolina

Patrick previews SMU's road matchup vs. East Carolina this Saturday!

SMU (0-4) opens its American Athletic Conference season when it travels to Greenville, N.C. to take on 22nd-ranked East Carolina University (3-1).

WHEN: Saturday, October 4, 2014. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. CT

WHERE: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, N.C.

TV/RADIO: ESPNU, KTCK 1310 AM/96.7 FM The Ticket

SERIES: Tied 2-2 (Tied 1-1 in Greenville)

LAST MEETING: SMU won 45-38 in overtime at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2010, clinching a spot in the Conference-USA championship game.

PONY TRENDS: Another game, another blowout loss for SMU. On Sept. 27, TCU came to Ford Stadium and stomped SMU 56-0. It was the first time SMU was shut out in Ford Stadium. Junior walk-on quarterback Garrett Krstich made his first career start and twice led SMU to the brink of scoring legitimate touchdowns. He led a 15-play, 76-yard drive that stalled at TCU’s 1-yard line. On the next drive, he threw a 36-yard touchdown to Darius Joseph, but it was overturned when Joseph was ruled down by contact at the TCU 30. SMU allowed a season-high nine sacks against TCU, but Krstich and the coaches both said that the offensive line has made progress. SMU’s offensive line struggled to block the superior athletes on Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU’s defensive lines. A game against AAC competition could be just what the group needs. Krstich said a lot of the sacks have been on him, and he is right. He has held onto the ball way too long at times and has taken a lot of sacks on third down.

Injuries are starting to pile up for SMU. Interim Head Coach Tom Mason said that safety Shakiel Randolph will be a game-time decision against ECU after leaving the game against TCU. Cornerbacks Horace Richardson and J.R. Richardson were both limited against TCU with nagging injuries, and the extent to which they will play Saturday is unknown. Center Taylor Lasecki was injured in practice and will not play.

OPPONENT STRENGTHS: Plain and simple, East Carolina moves the ball. The Pirates’ 43.3 points per game and 582 yards per game rank 13th and seventh, respectively. On Sept. 20, they dropped 70 points and 789 yards on North Carolina, a Power Five opponent. They also defeated Virginia Tech in the Hokies’ home stadium. They head into the SMU game coming off a bye week. senior quarterback and Houston native Shane Carden has quietly become one of the nation’s best at his position, even garnering a little Heisman attention. He has thrown for 1,469 yards and 11 touchdowns, while adding three rushing touchdowns. His top two receivers, senior (and former-walk on) Justin Hardy and sophomore Isaiah Jones, both average over 80 receiving yards per game. Each has caught 29 passes.

The Pirates’ ground game has impressed too. Their top three running backs, senior Breon Allen, freshman Marquez Grayson and junior Chris Hairston, all average over nine yards per carry. ECU does not feature a back, so expect those three plus freshman Anthony Scott to all see snaps.

ECU’s 5:6 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio is less than stellar. The Pirates also committed a combined 22 penalties in their last two games. But the mistakes were harmless thanks to the powerful offense.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: QB Shane Carden vs. SMU’s secondary. Carden leads ECU’s Air Raid offense against SMU’s banged-up secondary. SMU ranks last in the FBS in yards against and points against. Carden should have his way with SMU, but if the Musangs can force him and ECU to make mistakes, then they might be able to disrupt the Pirates’ powerful offense. SMU has forced opponents into mistakes before. Baylor committed 11 penalties against SMU. Texas A&M had four early penalties on offense/special teams and an early turnover.

KEYS TO THE GAME: With the offense showing tiny signs of life, it may break through against lesser competition. But to break through, Krstich must get the ball out faster and avoid sacks. The Mustangs have struggled on third down, converting only 16 of 66 on the season. But the third down deficiencies are partly caused by getting behind the chains on first down, so SMU needs to get positive yardage and solid gains on first down to create manageable distances on third down. SMU also has to get healthy in the secondary, or it will be a long day. Getting pressure on Carden would help take the load off the secondary. Offensively, SMU needs to get freshman wide receiver Courtland Sutton on the field. He showed well against A&M and has looked great in practice.

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