On the surface, this week’s SMU game at Tulane looks like a mismatch. The Mustangs are 4-0, sit at #17 in the AP Top 20, and have the best overall record in the AAC conference. Tulane is 2-2 overall and 0-2 in conference having just lost to Houston in the Cougars’ first game of the season.
Of course, any coach will tell you games are not played on paper, and SMU’s Sonny Dykes has a lot to prepare for, for Friday night’s game.
SMU At Tulane; No Looking Ahead
“Willie (Fritz, in his fourth year as Tulane head coach), is a good coach He has won everywhere he has been. They are always going to be solid on defense, solid on offense, and good on special teams,” Dykes said Monday.
One thing the Green Wave is not is balanced on offense. They are averaging 241 yards per game rushing and only 145 yards passing per game. Keon Howard and Michael Pratt share the quarterback duties for Tulane, and it is primarily because neither has been consistent enough to secure the full-time job.
Tulane’s Running Back Committee
The running game is a different story. The success is built on carries by committee. Cameron Carroll, Tyjae Spears, Stephon Huderson, and Amare Jones each has at least 25 carries on the season, with Carroll being the leader with 54.
It creates a unique challenge for Dykes and defensive coordinator Kevin Kane. Preparing for one productive back is one thing. Preparing for a group of them is different. Dykes compared it to preparing to play Navy. “I think the thing you’ve got to really worry about with Tulane is their schemes. They do a good job on staying one step ahead. It’s almost like Navy in some ways, where they are going to do this to attack you. And then you are going to adjust. And then they are going to do this. So you have to adjust again. So I don’t know that necessarily you hone in on a player as much as you do a scheme because they are capable, they are all good and they are all different.”
Dykes said the key to trying to keep the running game in check was his own team’s in-game adjustments throughout the night. “We have to make sure we have answers, because they are going to have them.”
Keeping the Tulane offense off the field will help. SMU’s offense is not exactly what anyone is going to refer to as ball control. And now there are significant personnel moves to be made. Starting running back T.J. McDaniel and receiver Reggie Roberson, Jr. are both lost for the season. McDaniel suffered what appeared to be a lower leg injury on the first play against Memphis two weeks ago. Roberson, a Biletnikoff Award candidate, suffered an apparent knee injury in the third quarter in the same game. Both will have season-ending surgery.
McDaniel had been part of the reason fellow running back Ulysses Bentley IV was having such success this season. McDaniel was starting the game and doing much of the early pounding, which made life a little easier for Bentley to come in later with fresh legs. “TaMerik (Williams) is going to be a really important part of that equation moving forward,” Dykes said. “Because we want to play with three guys at a minimum. The good thing about TaMerik is I think he’s ready to do that.”
The workload at receiver presents a different challenge. Dykes made it clear he does not like moving players from their natural position to fill in somewhere else when injures happen. He said the timing and the rhythm with quarterback Shane Buechele is too critical and cannot just be picked up by moving someone.
Who Steps Up?
“Anytime somebody gets hurt, it creates an opportunity for somebody else to step up. TQ Jackson will play the X spot, Calvin Wiggins will play X for us, as well. So, two very capable, young receivers that are big and fast and athletic, just not as experienced as Reggie. I think both of those guys have a ton of upside.”
Receiver Danny Gray has in fact moved around to different slots on the field. Dykes said he thinks that has maybe impacted Gray’s performance so far. “I think we’ve got Danny settled in a probably a little bit better,” Dykes said. He said that with Roberson out for the season, the offense is going to need more production from Gray, as well as tight end Kylen Granson.
Don’t Get Caught Calendar Watching
One thing Dykes feels certain of; with an undefeated record and national ranking, there is no being under the radar anymore. “Any time you start to have a little bit of success, people are going to get up for your game.” And let us not forget, SMU hosts Cincinnati the following week in a game that could be a conference championship preview. Dykes said the Mustangs take nothing for granted this week though. Tulane has won five of the last seven home games.