Time For SMU To Step Up

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Things are about to get real for SMU football. Sure, the Mustangs are 3-0. And yes, all the wins have been convincing. Even the Texas State game was not as close as the score said at the end of the game. But now it is time for SMU to step up. It is Memphis coming to Gerald J. Ford Stadium this weekend for the conference opener.

Time For SMU To Step Up

SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said in the locker room after last week’s home win over Stephen F. Austin, his team pretty quickly turned its attention to what was coming up.

It can be hard to figure out what is next. Memphis beat Arkansas State three weeks ago in the season opener. They have not played since. Concerns with COVID outbreaks within their own program caused them to cancel games against Houston and UTSA. The Tigers were already playing the season without elite running back Kenny Gainwell. One of the top all purpose offensive players in the country had four family members die from COVID. He chose back in August to opt out from the 2020 season and spend his time preparing for the NFL. The Tigers also lost receiver Coye Fairman and linebacker Tim Hart to COVID opt-outs.

Add that to players that have come and gone through practices, quarantines, and anything else that goes with Memphis football in 2020, and it is tough to prepare when Dykes does not even know who will be suiting up for Saturday’s game. “I think that is the one thing that is a little frustrating through all of this,” Dykes said this week. “You don’t know which of their players are going to play.”

Not Much To See On Tape

There is also the issue of who is fresh versus who is game ready. Memphis, conceivably, is well-rested. They have not played since the first week of September, and have controlled their practice hours, albeit with players coming in and out. On the other hand, SMU has played all but one scheduled game. And it is hard to replicate game speed scenarios at practice. Also, as of Monday afternoon, SMU has not had a positive COVID test since the start of the season. They have had consistency in their line-ups through practices and games. We won’t know which methodology is better until after the game Saturday.

Either way it is a big game because it starts off the AAC season against a perennial contender. SMU has not beaten the Tigers since 2013. Having them first on the conference schedule lends added weight. “That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to do really is point towards the importance of competing for a conference championship. And if you start off 0-1, sometimes it’s hard to get back in the race. It’s big game from that perspective.”

Consistency

To get there, the theme stays the same from week to week. SMU still has not put together 60 minutes of complete football. Maybe it was the ease of opponents, but the Mustangs have had lapses in each game on one side of the ball or the other. “We have proven that we can play good in stretches. We haven’t done it really as long as we need to up to this point.” Dykes said they have gotten away with it thus far because of the talent on the field versus the opposition. “It’s like I told our guys Sunday that we’ve got to tighten up our execution. We have been able to kind of out-athlete some people so far. We’re going to have a hard time doing that Saturday against Memphis. It is going to be more about executing.”

The most obvious place to look for consistency is the offense, and that starts with quarterback Shane Buechele. He predictably lit up Texas State in terms of yardage, (367 passing yards on 26 of 36 throwing). But had two interceptions with only one passing touchdown. The numbers against North Texas were much closer to what anyone would expect. He was 24 of 33 for 344 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The performance and the statistics against SFA did not match. He was 14 of 25 for 141 yards and two touchdowns. But he also had three receiver drops in the first quarter. Dykes agreed that his quarterback was not pleased with the performance either.

“I think he would agree he probably did not play his best game. He probably just never really got into sync probably as well as he had in other games this season.” Dykes said while most teams play at a fast pace on both sides of the line, SFA was slowing it down, and it may have been part of the reason for the loss of rhythm in the offense.

It is tough to know what to look for with Memphis. Quarterback Brady White had a decent enough game against Arkansas State three weeks ago, throwing for 280 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. As a team the Tigers rushed for 222 yards. Rodrigues Clark accounted for 105 of them. Conversely the Memphis defense gave up 299 yards passing and 125 on the ground.

White and Buechele had a shootout last year. The Memphis quarterback had 350 yards and three passing touchdowns. Buechele had 456 yards and three touchdowns, but the Tigers won 54-48 at home, ending SMU’s perfect season record at 8-0.

Familiarity

While Dykes may not know which Memphis players are suiting up, the defensive schemes are not likely to catch him off guard. Mike MacIntyre is the first-year defensive coordinator for the Tigers. He and Dykes go back to their days in the Pac 12. MacIntyre was the head coach at Colorado from 2013 to 2018, while Dykes was the head coach at Cal, (2013-2016). They faced each other twice during that period and came away with a 1-1 split.

Regardless of the unknowns, the inconsistencies, and whatever 2020 wants to throw at all college football programs, Dykes makes it clear it is time to ramp up. “The margin for errors gets smaller the better your opponent gets. So, we’ve to be able to execute on all three sides of the ball at a high level.”