‘I just knew’
Chad Morris could sense that SMU was locked in all week in advance of a trip to East Carolina. So SMU’s 55-31 win wasn’t a complete surprise.
“I just knew,” Morris said. “I felt that all week long that this group was ready to play, ready to respond.
“There was an intensity in the air that Sunday, and it carried through all week long.”
In particular, the focus showed up offensively. After a minus-3-yard opening drive, SMU piled up 480 yards and five offensive touchdowns. The 55 points are the most SMU has scored in Morris’ 22-game tenure.
SMU converted 12 of its 18 third downs, plus its one fourth down attempt. Converting just under half of all third downs is considered outstanding. Converting two-thirds? Nearly unfathomable. SMU had zero negative plays on first down and gained at least 6 yards 10 times on first down. That sets up shorter distances on third down. On 10 of the third downs, SMU only needed to gain 5 yards or fewer.
“It’s about guys doing their job,” offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. “I told our staff that I thought they did an unbelievable job last week of not only game-planning, but preparing our guys for the game plan. I thought that was the best we’ve done all year, from a coaching staff standpoint and preparing our kids. And I think our kids did a great job of going out and executing the plan.”
Hicks, after fumbling twice and taking three sacks in the loss to Memphis, did not turn the ball over and tossed three touchdowns to tie a season-high. He took a sack on the opening drive, but none after that. He also completed 60 percent of his throws (18 of 30) for the first time this season.
“I went up to coach Morris Friday night and said, ‘hey, he’s locked in.’ He has a different look in his eye than he’s had all year,” Craddock said. “He’s got more confidence as the games have gone by. You could just tell he was ready to go and ready to get back on the field after what had happened before.”
Oddly enough, SMU allowed only 8 fewer yards against East Carolina than it did against Memphis. The turnover margin accounts for the 20-point difference between those two games. After failing to force a turnover for the first time all year, SMU came back with five, including two interception return touchdowns from Horace Richardson.
After SMU allowed 17 points on ECU’s first four drives, the Mustangs forced a turnover on the next three Pirates possessions. They allowed a touchdown as the half ended, but then squashed any ECU momentum with Richardson's second pick-six on the first drive of the second half.
“We didn’t play our best game, so the fact that we created turnovers helped us,” defensive coordinator Van Malone said.
SMU finds itself in a familiar position after the win – experiencing success. The last time SMU had extended success, it lost focus and played its worst game of the year. Morris challenged his team to respond after the Memphis loss, but now he has to challenge them to prevent another letdown in focus.
Based on the locker room atmosphere after Saturday’s win, Morris thinks SMU can do that. He and his players celebrate every win, and they did – complete with his typical postgame dancing. But he said the players had a different intensity in the locker room despite the celebration, which he suspects is a result from previously losing focus by getting too caught up in success.
“It was what you hope you’re eventually moving this program toward, that any time we step on the field, we expect to win, where winning doesn’t surprise you,” Morris said. “I think we’re moving in that direction.”
Now at five wins for the first time since 2013, SMU needs to win one of its final two games vs. South Florida and Navy to become bowl-eligible. Morris isn’t allowing that discussion to happen yet.
“Like coach says, our flashlight can only shine 30 feet,” wide receiver Courtland Sutton said. “If we don’t take care of the tasks ahead of us and start looking at the overall picture, then we’ll be hurt. We’ll be in the offseason, hurt, saying we were that close to achieving a goal we set for ourselves.”
Special teams struggles
With the improvement on offense and defense this year, SMU’s special teams have remained poor. Saturday was no exception. SMU’s repeated squib kicks allowed ECU to start six drives on at least their own 35-yard line.
For the season, SMU is averaging only 17.97 yards per kick return and 3.83 yards per punt return. For opponents, those numbers are 23.18 and 9.35, respectively.
“I’m very concerned with our kicking game,” Morris said. “Our kicking coverage game and return game on our kickoffs, that’s something that has been a problem all year long. I know we have a lot of young guys on that unit, but that’s no excuse. Whatever we have to do. If we have to put Ben Hicks on our kickoff coverage unit to run down and make tackles, we’ll do that.”
Some coaches prefer to put their best players on special teams. SMU may not actually put its starting quarterback on coverage teams, but Craddock isn’t opposed to some of his best offensive players playing special teams.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Craddock said. “We have to do whatever it takes to win.”
This and that
South Florida's defense is giving up a conference-worst 480.5 yards per game, but Craddock is impressed with their athleticism and size: “They’re big, they’re physical and they can run. This game last year, when we showed up, it looked like an NFL team playing a high school team last year, from a size standpoint. We’re a different team last year. We have different players out there that match up better. But they’re very big and they’re fast.”
Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers is second in the conference with 1,131 rushing yards and averages a league-best 8.0 yards per carry. He has 13 touchdowns on the ground and 19 through the air, against five interceptions. His 154.2 passing efficiency leads the AAC: “They use him in a way, from a defensive standpoint, to put you in the most strenuous situations,” Malone said.
Redshirt freshman safety Kevin Johnson had a tackle for loss and a forced fumble on Saturday, but he also ran for a 10-yard touchdown. A do-everything two-way player in high school, Morris says he might see more time on offense. “He provides us with a spark. He’s one of the fastest players on the team. There are some things we can do with Kevin.”
Left guard Daniel McCarty did not play against ECU. Morris said he will be re-evaluated Tuesday and the team is “hoping he’ll be back” for the USF game. Blake Carlisle remains out indefinitely with a concussion.