2017 Game 5 preview: SMU
By: Jimmy Schofield
After a hard-fought win at Temple last week, your Houston Cougars return to the comfy confines of TDECU Stadium this Saturday (Oct 7) for a conference showdown as they host the SMU Mustangs. Kickoff is scheduled for 6pm (CST) and will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.
The Ponies (4-1, 1-0 in American Athletic Conference play) are led by Chad Morris, who’s 11-18 in his third season. His first season in 2015 saw the Ponies win only two games, but considering they had to win their final game of the 2014 season in order to avoid going winless, winning two games on ‘The Hilltop’ was seen as an improvement, especially not getting blown out every game. Last year was even better as the Mustangs won five games, including three conference games and a 38-16 demolishing of our Coogs, effectively knocking them out of the access bowl bid competition. The Coogs have won 20 of the 32 all-time meetings between the programs.
Morris is a Texas high school coaching legend as he had a 169-38 record overall in 16 years while winning back-to-back state titles, and going undefeated, in his final two seasons as a prep coach at Lake Travis during the 2008 and 09 seasons. In all, Morris took six of his teams to Texas State Championship Games, with three of those teams capturing state titles, and earned Coach of the Year honors 11 times. Morris then took his talents to Tulsa for a season before becoming the offensive coordinator at Clemson for three, setting school records for total offense and scoring (over 500 yards and 40 points per game) multiple years (behind the prolific arm of now Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson during his true freshman season) before parlaying those accomplishments into becoming the head man on ‘The Hilltop.’
His offensive coordinator, Joe Craddock, followed Morris from Clemson where he started as a graduate assistant and is now in his second season as play-caller at just 32 years old. The Ponies offense isn’t the typical spread in that they don’t throw horizontally a lot. They use bunch formations to get their wide receivers free releases off the line of scrimmage and flood the intermediate and deep areas of the field with receivers and running backs to confuse opposing defensive backs on who to cover when in zone coverage.
In other words, communication will be important for the Cougars back end, something they’ve had problems with this year. They’ll send outside receivers deep to clear the middle of the field for their slot receivers and running backs so making tackles in space will also be key. They also aren’t afraid to throw deep as they’ll make opponent’s cover down field, which is all set up via their play-action game as Craddock and Morris will emphasize the run behind a deep running back unit. The Ponies also will throw different looks at opponents, using shifts and motions to go from a spread set into a wildcat formation. They disguise their sets well and will use trick plays such as flee-flicker’s and wide receiver throwbacks.
For the season the Mustangs are averaging 48.2 points-per-game to rank THIRD nationally. Morris and Craddock preach balance as their offense averages 499.2 yards of total offense (16th); 300.2 through the air (20th) and 199 on the ground (43rd). Their 123 first downs are 13th nationally with 59 coming from the pass and 50 rushing (the other 14 coming via penalty).
They’ll be facing the “Third Ward defense” led by first year defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio which is 14th nationally in allowing 14.8 points-per game. Their 364.5 yards of total offense is 56th; 155.8 rushing (74th) and 208.8 passing (46th).
Ben Hicks (6-foot-1, 217 pounds, RSo.) is in his second year as the Ponies starting quarterback. At one point in the recruiting process Hicks had interest in Houston, but ultimately signed with SMU at the thought of playing early under Morris’s high-powered offense before enrolling in January of 2015. The Midland Waco product has a gun for an arm which can sometimes get him in trouble as he tends to force passes at times, though he has better than a 4-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio this season with 14 TD’s to only 3 interceptions. Hicks is averaging 255 yards-per-game (1,275 yards) and can be erratic when off his rhythm, completing just 54.3-percent of his passes (89-for-164).
A few years into the program he’s physically tougher as well, having lost 15 pounds in bad weight as he’s mobile and has great escapability from the pocket in that he can extend plays down field by escaping trouble from the pocket, where he’s the most comfortable. Craddock will have him pass off of called bootlegs and will roll the pocket when facing a fierce pass rush.
Wide receiver wise, Morris’ offense features three distinct positions with different routes and responsibilities. There’s the boundary receiver, or the “9.” It requires a big body while featuring more downfield routes and usually lines up at the line of scrimmage. This is Courtland Sutton’s (6-4, 218, Jr.) native position, though he can play all over the field. He’s a do-everything receiver who’s great with short routes in gaining YAC (yards after the catch) yardage as he’s great at using his physicality to break tackles. He’s also great at using his speed to get down field, cause separation and can high-point balls with the best of them. For the season he has 329 yards on 20 receptions (16.5 per grab) with almost a third of his catches going for touchdowns (7). On a little less than half of SMU’s called plays, Sutton must read coverages after the snap and decide where his route will take him after he begins it.
There’s the field receiver, or the “5,” that lines up on the other side of the field a yard off the line of scrimmage, next to the slot or the “2.” Trey Quinn (6-0, 202, Jr.) lines up at the “5,” but like Sutton can play any of the three receiver positions. The LSU transfer has become Hick’s favorite target this year with 37 receptions for 431 yards and 5 TD’s. Quinn is a great route runner and a consistent target who rarely drops a ball (insert diminutive white receiver stereotype here). James Proche (5-11, 188, So.) averages 26 yards-per-reception as a super speedy outside receiver with 312 yards on 12 grabs and 3 TD’s while Myron Galliard (5-9, 180, So.) averages 26.4 YPR, 132 yards on 5 receptions, with a TD from the slot.
The Pony Express 2.0
Per SMU’s game notes, under Morris the Mustangs have rushed for 200+ yards in 10 of 29 games, while only doing so 18 other times since 2000. SMU is 8-2 under Morris when they rush for 200+ yards.
They go three deep at running back behind Braden West (5-10, 165, Jr.), Xavier Jones (5-10, 203, So.) and Ke’Mon Freeman (5-11, 207, So.). While Craddock will usually ride the hot hand, both Jones and Freeman have 63 carries each for 368 and 311 yards (5.8 and 4.9 yards-per-carry) respectively. West is shifty and does a nice job of bouncing off of tackles for extra yards as he leads the unit in yards-per-carry at 7.2 (253 yards on 35 carries) and has great hands coming out of the backfield, especially on wheel routes, with 97 yards on 8 catches. Jones has a great combination of size and speed and is just now getting back into his groove after sitting most of last season with a shoulder injury after scoring 10 TD’s in 2015. Freeman takes the snaps out of their “Wild Pony” looks and is the bruiser as the go-to in goal line situations as he leads the unit with 6 rushing TD’s, to Jones 3.
They run behind an experienced offensive line led by three year starter Evan Brown (6-3, 308, Sr.) at center. The Rimington and Outland preseason watch list participant has 19 games under his belt at center and 17 at right guard and was selected as an AAC first team member by the media. After sitting out last week due to injury, Chad Pursley (6-4, 277, RJr.) returns at left tackle with 13 games of experience as a starter after sitting out last season due to injury. Last year’s starting left tackle was Nick Natour (6-4, 290, RJr.), who’s starting at his more natural position of left guard where he started four games during the 2015 season as a redshirt freshman. The right side of the line is young with first year starters Jacob Todora (6-4, 280, RFr.) at right guard with Bryce Wilds (6-7, 305, So.) at right tackle. Tight ends Raymond Epps (6-4, 248, GTr.) and Ryan Becker (6-5, 230, So.) haven’t caught a pass yet this season, though a few have been attempted as they’ve leaked out of the back field as H-back’s or down the seem as a traditional tight end. The two are used better as sixth blockers as the O-line has allowed just 8 sacks (tied for 53rd) and their running backs average 4.8 yards-per-carry.
The big question for Houston’s defense pertains to Big Ed Oliver (6-3, 290, So.) as the nose guard sprained the MCL in his knee last week at Temple and is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game. Head coach Major Applewhite said he played with the injury last year as his knee was braced up so it looks to be a game time decision. If he doesn’t play there will be a huge void in the middle of the “Third Ward Defense” as Oliver has been up to his usual tricks as he’s fourth on the defense in both total and solo tackles with 23 and 17 respectively. He also adds 3.5 tackles-for-loss and has forced two fumbles this season after chasing quarterbacks 10 yards up the field.
Oliver’s presence is felt even when he doesn’t make a play as being stout at the point of attack up the A and B gaps allows defensive ends Nick Thurman (6-4, 293, Sr.) and Reggie Chevis (6-2, 290, Sr.) to receive mainly one-on-one blocks in which they’ve held up allowing the linebackers penetration at the line of scrimmage. True freshman Payton Turner (6-5, 240) and Aymiel Fleming (6-3, 290, So.) have done a nice job as the two youngsters have given D’Onofrio a nice 5-man rotation up front. Thurman and Turner each have 2 TFL and a sack. The unit as a whole was gashed quite a few times in the second half at Temple last week with Oliver leaving near the end of the first quarter as the Owls rushed for 122 yards after being held to minus-8 in the first half.
Inside linebackers Mathew Adams (6-1, 237, Jr.) and D’Juan Hines (6-1, 230, Sr.) are going to have to be prepared to disengage second level blocks if they hope to keep the Ponies from running the ball down their throats if Oliver is absent. Adams leads the D with 43 total and 25 solo stops while adding 4 TFL, a pass defended, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Hines needs to continue racking up the tackles with his 33 total and 20 solo stops.
Outside rush backer Emeke Egbule (6-3, 245, Jr.) left last week’s game as well with an apparent hand injury but nothing has been released at this time of his status. With only 7 sacks total by the defense, tied for 89thh nationally with a host of teams, Egbule (19 tackles, 14 solo, 2.5 for loss) is important as he and hybrid outside linebacker/safety Khalil Williams (5-11, 210, Sr.) each have a team leading 2 sacks. Williams has been used on the delayed blitz very effectively as he has a team leading 7 TFL and is also the best tackler in space as all 19 of his stops are solo.
A third starter on the defense, Jeremy Winchester (5-11, 203, Jr.) also left the game last week late in the final period but nothing has been said of his status either. With Alexander Myres (5-10, 192, Jr.) and Ka’Darian Smith (5-11, 180, So.) not seeing many snaps (2 tackles in 3 games), Isaiah Johnson (6-3, 195, Jr.) could be the only healthy cornerback playing against a pass-happy Mustangs club. Johnson has become the secondary’s best cover corner as he’s tied with strong safety Terrell Williams (6-4, 212, Sr.) with 4 pass breakups while they each have an interception as well. Free safety Garrett Davis (6-0, 205, Jr.) leads the back end with 3 interceptions and is third with 25 total and 20 solo tackles. As I mentioned earlier, the secondary needs to communicate better against an SMU team that loves to run rub routes (legal picks) and crossers over the middle of the field as well as tossing deep posts.
Defensively for the Ponies, they’re improving on third year coordinator Van Malone’s 4-2-5 scheme, allowing 30.2 points-per game (94th) and 431.6 yards of total offense (103rd); 106.6 on the ground (23rd) and only 3 yards-per-rush to 325 through the air (128th).
Houston’s offense under first year coordinator Brian Johnson has been a work in progress, averaging just 25.2 points-per-game (90th) and 425.5 yards of total offense (61st); 285.5 passing (28th), 140 rushing (87th).
Kyle Postma (6-2, 200, Sr.) started his third career game last week and completed 25-of-36 passes for 226 yards with a TD and an interception. What he adds that former 5-star recruit Kyle Allen (6-3, 211, RJr.) doesn’t is the element of a quarterback run game as he led the offense with 81 yards on 15 carries.
For the game last week Postma had 33 yards on 7 zone read option keepers. Allen always gave the ball to his running back on these plays, thus making the “read” part of the play ineffective allowing opposing defenses to key in on the RB’s. This play was particularly effective on the stretch zone when D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.) motioned into the backfield from the slot for a two-back set look. On called draws, Postma had 45 yards on 5 carries, with a high of 35, and just 3 yards on 3 carries when he was forced out of the pocket via pressures. But unlike Allen, even on those pressures he can make a positive play out of a negative one.
One play Postma kept alive was a third-and-goal from the 18-yard line early in the game at Temple. He escaped pressure and avoided the sack. He ended up throwing an incompletion in the end zone but the offense got three points out of it via a field goal for a 13-0 lead. With Allen that’s probably a sack and pushing the offense out of field goal range.
The running back duo of Duke Catalon (6-0, 215, Jr.) and Dillon Birden (5-10, 200, Sr.) need to hit the holes hard and fast against the small yet speedy Ponies front-7 that allows just 106 rushing yards per game. Catalon barely leads with 182 rushing yards, on 44 carries, to Birden’s 145, on just 28 carries. Birden, who came out early in the second half, leads with a 5.2 ypc average and 2 TD’s. Postma adds 139 total rush yards (6.6 ypc) with King just 21 on 8 carries (2.6 ypc).
The Coogs are going to have to run the ball effectively to win because they can’t be in third-and-long down and distances as the Ponies love to bring the heat, ranking first nationally in sacks with 21. Of course, stats can be misleading as they had 9 last week against a porous UConn offensive line. The Ponies front-7 can be very imposing, led by defensive end Justin Lawler (6-6, 266, Sr.) who was named the AAC defensive player of the week after registering 4 sacks last week. Lawler is quick to shed tackles as he’s second on the defense with 30 total tackles and fourth with 16 solo while adding a team leading 6 sacks and is second with 8.5 TFL. He’s also added 5 QB hurries and 2 fumbles as well. Dimarya Mixon (6-4, 250, Sr.) is the strong side defensive end and has 13 tackles (9 solo, 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks). Tyeson Neals (6-3, 237, So.) has a motor that doesn’t stop as he never gives up on a play, adding 4 sacks and 3 TFL while Nick Horton (6-2, 247, Sr.) adds an additional 2 sacks as reserve DE’s.
Demerick Garry (6-3, 275, So.) and Pono Davis (6-2, 282, So.) are the two starting defensive tackles with Chris Biggurs (6-2, 280, So.) and J.T. Williams (6-1, 285, Sr.) getting plenty of time in reserve clogging the middle with 3.5 TFL and a sack combined. Garry has also shown quick hands on the interior with a pass batted up for an interception. Mason Gentry (6-6, 300, Sr.) started 23 games over the first two plus years of his career but has been relegated to the bench and played in just 2 games this year, but adds 2 sacks as well.
Against a defensive line that can go a legit 9-deep and holds opponents to just 3 yards-per-carry, the Coogs offensive line of (from left to right) Josh Jones (6-5, 303, RSo.), Braylon Jones (6-3, 311, So.), Will Noble (6-4, 297, Jr.), Marcus Oliver (6-3, 300, Sr.) and Na’Ty Rogers (6’5, 302, Sr.) need to get a better push up front on both pass and run blocking if the offense is to be successful.
The Mustangs linebackers are hard hitters as they come down hill quickly, led by middle linebacker Anthony Rhone (6-0, 237, Sr.), who’s always around the ball with 22 total, 14 solo, 1.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Jordan Williams (6-1, 219, So.) is a blur from his Will linebacker spot and adds 21 tackles, 15 solo and 3 for loss. Kyran Mitchell (6-0, 213, Jr.) is probably their best tackler in space from his “Star” (hybrid outside linebacker/safety) position as 24 of his 28 tackles are solo. He’s very aggressive coming off the edge as his 9 TFL and 2 forced fumbles leads the defense. Mitchell is also tied with Neals for second with 3 sacks.
Postma and Allen have a combined 73.4 completion percentage, good for fourth nationally, but it could be even better if not for the drops by Cougars wide receivers which dropped five alone last week by my unofficial count. As the offense continues to evolve, it seems as if Postma can play simple pitch-and-catch with slot receiver Linell Bonner (6-0, 200, Sr.) on simple underneath routes as the former walk-on leads the unit in receptions, 32, yards, 300, and TD’s with 3. Outside receiver Steven Dunbar (6-3, 202, Sr.) gives Postma a solid second target with his 290 yards on 24 receptions as he stretches the defense wide and does a nice job in the screen game as well. While no consistent third receiver has stepped up, a core from Keith Corbin (6-3, 193, So.), John Leday (6-0, 200, Sr.), D’Eriq King (5-11, 190, So.) and Ellis Jefferson (6-4, 220, Sr.) gives Postma a combination of speed and size from which to choose from. On the latest depth chart Corbin has taken the outside starting spot over Leday, who’s much better at the interior screen game as his 6.5 yards-per-receptions attests (111 yards on 17 catches and a TD). Corbin has the jets for deep posts but must show he can consistently catch the ball to see more playing time. He leads the team in YPR at 24.2 but only has 5 catches, for 121 yards. Jefferson was injured during the first game and is now just getting his legs under him. A nice sized target, especially in the red zone, the Arizona State grad transfer needs to fine tune his technique as he has two offensive pass interference calls this season via slight push-off’s, which refs are targeting closer. King has 12 catches since returning two games ago, for 111 yards and a TD as Johnson continues to look for ways to get the former Manvel QB the ball from his slot position.
Alex Leslie (6-5, 240, Sr.) and Romello Brooker (6-3, 240, Jr.) are physical targets at tight end that could be used more in the passing game, but haven’t shown the consistency as they have a combined 7 catches (4 for Brooker) for 78 yards (47 for Leslie). Catalon and Birden also aren’t being used as much out of the backfield as receivers as they have a combined 14 grabs (8 for Catalon) for 80 yards (45 for Birden).
Mikial Onu (5-11, 192, So.) leads the Ponies defense from his strong safety position with 38 total tackles, 29 solo. Rodney Clemons (6-0, 187, So.) covers ground quickly from his free safety spot as 24 of his 26 total tackles are solo. He also has two TFL and a sack as Malone isn’t afraid to crowd his safeties inside the box. When in man coverage, Jordan Wyatt (6-0, 192, Jr.) has proven to be the Ponies best cornerback as he has 4 passes defended including 2 of the teams’ 3 interceptions on the season. Malone will also use his physicality off the edge bringing him on corner blitzes as he adds 2.5 TFL, a sack. He’s also a hard hitter with 2 forced fumbles and a sure tackler as 17 of his 20 total tackles are solo. Christian Davis (6-0, 184, So.), Eric Sutton (5-10, 168, So.) and Kevin Johnson (5-10, 164, So.) also provide help at corner and nickel with a combined 22 total and 18 solo tackles with 2 passes defended.
The Ponies have two blocked kicks this season, one each by Becker and Lawler (who has 4 for his career using his 6-6 frame for great leverage), so place kicker Caden Novikoff (5-10, 190, Jr.) and punter Dane Roy (6-7, 240, So.) will have to be on their P’s-and-Q’s when on the field. Novikoff has connected on 5-of-7 field goals while Roy is averaging 40.5 yards punting. All 22 of his punts have either been fair caught (12) or been placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (10). The Coogs punt coverage unit is only allowing 1-yard per return (3 yards on 3 returns), good for tenth nationally. The Ponies are only averaging 4.4 yards-per-return (22 yards on 5 returns).
Novikoff needs to be more consistent on kickoffs as he has kicked 2 of his 20 out of bounds with only 5 touchbacks. The Ponies are averaging just 21.9 yards on 14 kick returns while the Coogs kick coverage unit allows 19.4 per.
SMU allows 23 yards per kick return while the Coogs are sixth nationally with a 31-yard average thanks to Leday’s 36.4 average on 5 returns with a long of 81 against Arizona. Kicker Josh Williams (5-11, 179, Jr.) has 9 touchbacks on 39 kickoffs but I’d still look for him to kick away from Leday. Brandon McDowell (5-9, 183, Sr.) has a kick return for 35 yards while Derek McLemore (5-10, 187, Sr.) has one for 25 yards. Williams has connected on 6-of-8 field goals this season.
Mustangs punter Jamie Sackville (5-11, 195, So.), good name for a punter right, averages 41 yards on his 24 punts while pinning opponents inside their 20 on 10 occasions while forcing another 4 fair catches. Punt returns have been a weakness for the Coogs as they average just 2.5 (15 yards on 6 returns). McDowell has just 15 yards on 5 total punt returns, including a fumble. Collin Wilder (5-10, 195, So.) has the one return for zero yards but has not played the last few games due to a knee injury. The Mustangs allow 6.8 yards on punt returns (48 yards on 7 returns).
Keys to the game
1.) The Coogs need to get in front early so they can rely on their run game and try to overpower the smaller Mustangs defensive front. If it’s a close game throughout Houston’s offense may have problems against the aggressive SMU front-7 as there still seems to be communication issues from the Coogs O-line.
2.) Stop the Pony Express. Morris/Craddock will try to establish the run early. If D’Onofrio’s defense can put the Mustangs into third-and-long down and distances the defense will be able to get off the field.
3.) Score touchdowns in the red zone. The Cougars have crossed the goal line 12 times in 20 opportunities inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, ranking them 66th nationally. SMU’s defense has allowed touchdowns on only 9-of-12 such opportunities (111th). The Ponies offense has crossed the goal line 12-of-17 times (43rd) while the Coogs D has allowed only 4 TD’s in 12 attempts, ranking them SECOND nationally.
4.) The team that wins the turnover battle gives themselves the best chance to win. For the season the Cougars have a plus-1 turnover ratio, placing them tied at 48th nationally with a myriad of teams. The Ponies are at FIFTH nationally at a plus-8. Their 7 fumble recoveries have them THIRD nationally.
5.) Don’t beat yourself. This ties into turnovers, but penalties also are included when speaking of mental errors. Both teams see plenty of laundry on the field as the Coogs are 102nnd in the nation averaging 7.5 penalties per game, for 69.5 yards. The Mustangs aren’t much better with 6.8 penalties (92nnd) for 63.4 yards.
With no updates on Birden, Egbule, Winchester and Oliver a game time decision, the Coogs are pretty beat up. I don’t have a good feeling about this one. If Big Ed sits I don’t think the defense can slow down SMU’s run game. If that’s the case Hicks will carve up the secondary via the play action game. Offensively if the Coogs get down early they’ll be forced to pass more which will allow the Mustangs to pin their ears back and add to their nation’s leading 21 sacks.
Pretty pretty Ponies – 34
Houston - 24