All season long SMU head coach Sonny Dykes has been concerned about the inconsistency of the Mustangs offense. That inconsistency Saturday night cost them an undefeated season, the top spot in the ACC, and likely the Group of Five spot in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
Converting on only seven of 20 third down conversions, having nine receiver drops, and an inexplicable lack of clock awareness just before halftime also cost SMU in the form of a 42-13 loss to Cincinnati at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. The Bearcats, because of COVID and a bye week, were playing their first game in three weeks. The game was not the blowout that the final score would represent, but for the damage it did to the Mustangs, it may as well have been.
SMU dropped to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play. Cincinnati moves to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the AAC.
The SMU offense started the game slowly and it never picked up for any sustained length of time. Quarterback Shane Buechele had his worst statistical performance of the season, going 23 of 44 for 216 with one touchdown and one interception. That includes the seven drops by the receivers and tight ends. Even the interception went off the hands of SMU receiver Danny Gray before it was picked. The Mustangs finished the game with only 290 total yards of offense, and only 75 net yards rushing. Credit the Cincinnati defense all you want. Statistically, the Bearcats came into the game ranked as one of the best defenses in the country. But SMU had plenty of opportunities. But its inability to find a rhythm on offense and keep it for more than a few minutes at a time was a deciding factor.
The Bearcats went up by two touchdowns later in the quarter. All of the Bearcats receivers were covered so Ridder took off for a 15-yard touchdown run. At the end of the first quarter Cincinnati had tallied 137 yards to SMU’s 26.
Buechele finally engineered a scoring drive in the second quarter. On the strength of 28 yards of rushing by Ulysses Bentley IV. Rahsee Rice made a lunging grab of a nine-yard Buechele pass on the left side of the end zone and it was 14-7. The drive was as uncharacteristic of the night as was SMU’s offense all game. It took 17 plays to cover 83 yards and burned 7:49 off the game clock.
SMU’s next drive ended with a missed 46-yard field goal by Chris Naggar. All of a sudden, the kicker who started the season six for six has now missed three field goals in the last two games.
The Mustangs had one more chance to tie the score before halftime. With five Buechele completions they got down to the Cincinnati 12 yard line, with 22 seconds left on the clock and two timeouts at their disposal. But neither Buechele nor Dykes called a timeout. The quarterback did not spike the ball. Instead he went back into the shotgun and called a play, burning at least 10 seconds. He wound up completing a pass to Gray to the Cincinnati nine-yard line but there were only five seconds left. Dykes took the measured route and took the 26-yard field goal from Naggar to end the half down 14-10.
With the final score being what it was, it might seem insignificant. But that lost four points hung over SMU much of the rest of the game. After the game, Buechele fell on the sword for what happened. “I should have called a timeout I think. It’s up to the coaches, but ultimately the clock management part was on me. I was trying to get a route to Danny (Gray) on the back side. I lost track of it, so it was completely on me. It was my fault.
Even though, with that final drive of the half, SMU had outgained Cincinnati in total yards, 151 to 144, the Bearcats had put together a balanced attack with 72 yards each for rushing and passing. The Mustangs had managed only 39 yards rushing. Add in a few of the receiver drops and it says that even while the score was close, SMU was hanging on.
In third quarter, on third and 11 from the SMU 47-yard line, Ridder took off and picked up 24 yards. The drive would end with a one-yard touchdown run from Gerrid Doaks to put the Bearcats up 21-10. That lost four points was looming large. But so was Ridder’s ability to keep plays alive with his scrambling. He wound up running for three touchdowns to go with 179 yards, (91 coming late in the game when the outcome had all but been decided already). After the game, Dykes gave Ridder credit. “He kept some drives alive scrambling on third down when we lost contain. He’s a good player. He’s a leader. He executes their offense well.”
Cincinnati expanded the lead in the third quarter the same way; with the legs of Ridder. On first and 15, with the Bearcats driving, Ridder called his own number on what looked like a delayed quarterback draw. The result was a wide-open field over the right tackle for 32 yards and a touchdown. Cincinnati was now up by three scores at 28-10.
Naggar added a 22-yard field goal early in the 4th quarter to narrow the deficit to 28-13. The Mustangs had two other drives but specially needing touchdowns, they came up empty in the red zone.
Ridder added that 91-yard touchdown run and Doaks had a 35-yard touchdown for the final score.
Dykes said it was hard getting any running game going against the Cincinnati defense. “We knew coming in they were going to be good. We knew coming in what they were going to do was load the box and take the run away. You’re running into a pretty stacked box. You’ve got to make some plays on the outside.”
He pointed out the dropped passes as well. “When you do that, it doesn’t give you a chance to be competitive in the ballgame.”
Dykes gave credit to Cincinnati on both sides of the ball, but also answered several of the postgame questions by including that the Mustangs did not play well.
“When everything is going well and you’re winning, it’s easy for everybody. You get a game like tonight and get exposed and don’t play well, you really find out what you are about as a football team, you know and as a program. We’ll find out what we’re about as coaches and everybody in general. You find out what teams are made of and what people’s character is all about individually when you have a little bit of adversity and get your tail kicked.”
The Mustangs host Navy next Saturday.