We're hard at work getting ready for SMU. I think Coach (June) Jones has done a great job with their program to this point. The thing I'm most impressed with is their defense. They have a transfer from Texas A&M playing linebacker, they have a kid from Estonia, 6-8, 290-pound guy. Their defensive line is impressive. They held Houston to their season low in yardage. They're very much improved. They don't look like the same group defensively.
They have big play capabilities on offense with Sanders. They throw the ball all over the place and have a great scheme there. I'm very impressed with their special teams. We're going to have to do a great job covering punts and kicks. They ran the opening kickoff back against Houston and had it called back. They're very athletic and a very good football team. Like every week in Conference USA, we're going to have to get out here and play well.
How much does the UTEP loss hurt your chances to get where you would like to get?
It doesn't help anything. Our goal of being the Conference USA champion is still intact, but you also have to play well. In 2007, it's kind of eerie. It's the exact same scenario. We had just lost to Oklahoma and got beat by UTEP where we mismanaged the clock.
When that happens, you bring it on yourself and rightfully so. You get a lot of negative. We're 4-3. That's where we are at right now. What that team and that staff were able to do was rally the troops. That's what we did and we won out. That's what you have to do now. The margin of error is small. What we have to do is just focus on the next game. Our guys have a great confidence and belief in each other. We had a lot of guys sick and that's been bizarre all over the country.
We're hoping to have Tyler Holmes back. Right now it would be a game-time decision with him. We just have to get better. We learned some things. I think we thought we had the game in hand and we got relaxed there. We got too conservative on the last two series on offense. You learn some things as you go through it. This team has been there before. We have an experienced staff and experienced players and I have a great belief in them. We have to go to work and get a win over SMU and then we go to the next one.
How nice is it to finally be at home?
I sat in the locker room getting ready to get on the bus after the game. It has not been an easy schedule. The academic rigor here and schedule is already difficult with the different nights that we are playing. The exposure that we get is big for our program. It's been difficult. Five of the first seven on the road, I've never done that before. If we come out and win that game, you're sitting 4-1 on the road and it would have been pretty nice.
The schedule has been tiring and wearing on you, but it is positive that we play four of the next five at home, especially the next three in a row that are going to be difficult games.
When you lose a game in the fashion that you lost that one, what is the emotion of the team?
Our guys, we have a lot of character on our team. I talked about it's how you respond. This is a critical time in coaching. When things are going well, it's easy for people to respond the right way, but when you face a setback or adversity, it's important how you respond. That's when you lead.
I don't want to walk into a locker room when we lose and see anyone smiling. You have true problems when that happens. Our guys were disappointed. The feel that I got from the locker room was there was no finger pointing. Everyone had a hand in it. Players, coaches, we had that game with six minutes left and were winning. They came back and they made the plays and we didn't. That's what happened.
We have some really good leaders. Mike Bryan is the leader of our team. I spoke to the guys and talked about circling the wagons and going to work. What you do is pull together and stay poised and believe in what you're doing. You don't flinch and respond like teams have responded in the past.
That's the thing about this league. We're playing a team this week that beat East Carolina, the defending conference champion. I'm sure they were answering the same type of questions. We lost a game that we felt like we should have won. That doesn't play in. You either win or lose it. In this league, every week you better get ready to play because anybody can beat anyone in this league.
I thought our guys have responded well. We've had good practices. I don't sense any wavering on their part. They know what it takes and we've been here before.
You talked about this seven-game stretch on the road and now you are through it. Do you set any new goals?
We talked a lot about five of the first seven on the road. This is the make-and-break for everybody in the country. You get past the first seven games, now you're coming in here and we have five ball games left. This is going to decide the fate of your season.
You look back and the history of it, no one has gone through this league unbeaten. At this point, and what I've tried to make the guys understand, is that we've lost one game. That's made the margin for error pretty slim. You just have to go win. For our goals, of being Conference USA champions, we're in a single-elimination tournament now. We can't afford to have one more setback.
We have to go out here and win. We are going to play the next three at home, where we've played extremely well. That gives us great comfort. Then we have one more road game at Southern Miss and then back home for Memphis. There are no excuses. That's what I liked in the locker room. When we have a defeat, I talk about being a thumb pointer, not a finger pointer and I point right at myself. I'm responsible for everything. Every play and every player. There are things that we have to get better at and our guys recognize and understand that.
I didn't talk a lot about (the road schedule) even though I knew it was a big challenge, that type of schedule. I talked about being road warriors during that time. People always say you have one game that you lose that you should have won and you have all this criticism. You bring it on yourself. What you do is go out, work and win and you don't have to deal with that. That's the way it is and that's the way it should be.
At season's end, will you reevaluate scheduling in terms of the weekday games?
I don't have any choice in that. Bubba (Cunningham) doesn't either. Our conference schedule is dictated by our conference. We only have choice in scheduling in nonconference games. We do have choices on ESPN or media games on whether to accept them or not. But there's also some financial things that we have to consider as well.
I don't make any excuse by our schedule. When we got our schedule last year, I was excited about it. I looked at the home and away schedule and wasn't excited about that, or playing there conference games in a row away. But Rice played their first three games in a row on the road like we did.
We don't have as much control over that. There are a lot of factors that go into scheduling. Our philosophy of scheduling, when I came here, is that we want to play in big games. We want to play a BCS school every year and not just a BCS school. We want to play Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and throw an Arkansas in there from time to time. Our BCS record isn't that good, but we're playing Oklahoma. We're not playing the lower-level BCS schools.
We also want to play schools of like-minded interest, like a Boise State, a TCU or a BYU like we've done in the past. We think our fans want to see those types of games. In the other two games, you like to have games that you think you're going to win. It's not always like that, though. For instance, next year we've got Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. That doesn't fit into what we just said. But what has to go with that is that we think our fans and players will be excited for the opportunity to go into South Bend and play and compete against Notre Dame.
Oklahoma State is a no-brainer. I'd like to play Oklahoma one year and Oklahoma State the next. The year after that, we have both of them in the same year and Boise State, and I'm not happy about that schedule.
Things sometimes come into play, like paying the bills. There are a lot of factors that come into making your decision. You're only going to have one non-BCS team that's going to have access to the BCS bowls. You have TCU and Boise State right now that are the front runners for that deal. One of those guys is going to be left out. (Some people's) justification is that they don't play as tough a conference schedule as we do, but you have to look at the nonconference.
One of the things that we have to do is look at what's best for our student-athletes. I can tell you that this schedule this year has been very difficult. We're not like everyone else. We're different academically and the smallest Division I-A school in the country (playing football). We don't have many class offerings. We can't practice on Mondays. It's not because I don't want to. I can't. Our guys have to have Monday to focus on academics because our guys have classes all the way until 9 p.m. at night. When you play on Wednesday, you have to figure out how you're going to practice on Monday.
It's very difficult. I'm sure we'll look at that. Class misses, we're going to have more because of the schedule and we'll have excused absences. We're competing in classrooms where 1-in-9 students are national merit scholars. They're setting the curve. When you're not there, it's very difficult. Time becomes an issue. We don't have as much control as you think we do.
Can you talk about the offense - not whether it's struggling - but where it is right now and in comparison to last year?
There's no question that we're not putting up the numbers of last year. The difference is that it's a different group of guys with a different set of circumstances. We're trying to adapt and do the best that we can. We've put up good numbers. Our offense is toward the top end of Conference USA and the country.
We've had a lot of positives. The hard thing is we put up so much out of sight numbers in the past, it makes it difficult. Have we been pleased with how it's gone? No, we haven't been. But when you write on paper and see that for most of the games we have four offensive lineman that we didn't have playing last year. You have a new quarterback and you're missing Tarrion Adams and Brennan Marion
People focus the most on Gus (Malzahn) leaving. Are all those things factors? Of course they are factors. I'm very pleased with where we're at and I have a great belief in what we are doing. We have a great system in how we are doing things. We have to adapt to our guys.
Our focus on wanting to stay with what we've done in the past has probably hurt us more than anything. We have been a team that basically had six-man protection, check-released the back and not max-protected, not much sprint-out and bootlegs. We've been a team that's thrown the ball 40-45 percent of the time. We ran it 60-65 percent. I think we've tried to be adaptive. In the last game, in the second and third quarters, we did what we should have done.
Anytime you lose a game like that, you question what we did down the stretch. When you're in a game like that on the road, you have to put the thing in left lane and be aggressive. We didn't do that down the stretch, which was a mistake. You learn from that, move forward. I don't have a problem losing if we do that. Then if you do that and throw an interception for a touchdown, then everybody's ripping you for throwing the ball. You just have to win. You have to figure out a way to win.
We have a more balanced football team. You look at the defense and the defensive numbers that we've put up. We're gotten more balanced as a football team. We had some components in that football game that were very difficult. Damaris was sick all week and we got the ball to him twice. The reason why? He didn't have legs. He'd been sick. We've had some challenges that were difficult.
I remember in this SMU game last year. We lost Charles Clay and Jesse Meyer was hurt. That game was a disaster offensively. We threw a fake punt with fourth-and-21 to win that football game. You have to win close football games. We lost a close football game that we've usually won. I would tell you that we have to keep improving and getting better offensively and protecting our quarterback.
We also need to adapt a little more to what we need to do. That's been the thing. When you've had the No. 1 offense in the country for two years and you have certain plays that you have done, our focus on wanting to do those same plays has been the thing that's given us difficulties. It's the reason we've had so many sacks. When you have had an enormous amount of success running about six pass plays and then all the sudden you call those six pass plays and you're getting sacked all the time on those six pass plays, we've probably ran those too much.
We're also in a bit of a learning curve. Ultimately, I'm responsible for everything on offense, defense and kicking game. I have a great belief in our staff. They've all made sacrifices to be here and to be a part of our program. I don't have one question in what they are doing. I have been very involved in what we've done offensively, but I think it's important to loosen up and let those guys go with it. That's what we did.
We ran the ball 45 times. The first thing everyone said was Coach (Herb) Hand is the line coach and he's going to run the ball on every down. That's not the case either. We just have to get things rolling and adapt to what we're doing. We just have to be adaptive to what we do and what we have the ability to do right now.
Last year you needed a fake punt, and two years ago, you needed a goal line stand to win this game. You have been favored in both games. Is it a matchup game for you?
's just like the UTEP deal. I really think you can look at the history of these games. They're going to be close. This game with SMU is going to be a close football game. We've gone down there and been beat when we were heavy favorites. This game is a rivalry game. Their guys get up for this game and so do our guys. We had a goal-line stand and went 99 3/4 yards to win the game in 2007. In 2008, we were very fortunate to get out with a win.
I always talk to the guys about that. People talk about 2005 and said you guys won a conference championship and everything was super. We were 6-2 and we were dead in the water and UTEP has to lose the last three games and we had to win the last three games. You just have to have good things happen your way. This game ... it's not the same deal. They are a much better football team than they were last year and the biggest marked difference is their defense.
In the league, there are seven teams tied for first - four in your division, three in the other division. Does that speak toward the balance?
I juust think there's tremendous balance. The thing I'm hoping for is that a big factor is home field. We have four of our last five at home and our guys play great here. That's the thing that we have to do. In talking to our guys last week, I really think our guys relaxed and you have to play for 60 minutes and take care of the football.
Our quarterback is taking care of the football on offense. We have done that better.
There's great parity in this league and the next five games are going to be close. There's no question about it and we're going to have to make the plays down the stretch to win. When it's over with, we have to look back and ask did we give our kids a chance to win. What I want to make sure that we're doing ... if I was a UFC fighter, I'm not to go five rounds. I'm going to get after it. I'm going to know them out and they're going to knock me out. That needs to be our mentality. I want to be aggressive and that's helped and served us well in the past.
When we were playing Boise State and we have a deal that we look at and it's wide open 100 percent of the time. Then a guy jumps up and bats the ball down. Then you go ooh, let's never do that again. You start going out trying not to mess up instead of going out, putting it into the left lane and performing. That's going to be our focus down the stretch. We have to be aggressive. There's not anybody in this league dominating anyone else.
How much of a factor, in the offense, is the running back situation because you have guys lame or slowed (by illness)?
One of the things that I tell our coaches is that I don't want to hear that people were sick and people were injured or hurt on the offensive line. I wish we never talked about the offensive line, because perception becomes reality.
This is football. It's the most physical sport on the planet. You're going to have guys get sick. You're going to have guys get hurt. But you still have to go out and play the game. That's what makes it a great game because it's a team sport.
I can't look at any of that and say that's why we haven't put up numbers or performed as well. I don't care about the numbers. I care more about winning. The only thing that bothers me is that we didn't beat UTEP. I couldn't care less if we ran it every down or threw it every down, as long as we win.
It's been difficult. I knew that coming in. Tarrion (Adams) was a lot better player than a lot of people thought and was a lot more versatile. We've not been as consistent at that position, but other things have factored into that. We haven't got as much movement up front. Our inside running game hasn't been effective, even though that did improve in our last game. We really did run the ball well in the last football game. Hopefully that will continue to get better.