SMU Looking For Character Check

SMU Looking For Character Check
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Picking up the pieces after a loss can be a delicate balancing act for coaches. Their team goes into a game riding high, and then comes out not riding anything but bruised and battered egos. It leaves SMU looking for a character check.

SMU went into last week’s home game against Cincinnati with a 5-0 record and a Top 20 ranking. Then everything crashed down around them. Poor play, poor clock management, and an inability to execute the fundamentals resulted in a 42-13 beating. The game was closer than the score would lead one to believe, as the Bearcats scored a couple of late touchdowns. But it was a beatdown, none the less.

SMU Looking For Character Check

After the game, Mustangs head coach Sonny Dykes said, “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.”

Monday, 48 hours removed from the game, Dykes had a new perspective. After looking at the game tape, it was still bad, just not as bad as it felt Saturday night. “The game is never as good as you thought it was if you won, and it is never as bad as you thought it was if you lost. That’s just the way it is once you go back and look at the film.” Dykes said he found more positives than he anticipated once he re-watched the game. He also said he did not see anything that changed his coaching assessment of what went right or wrong. “The film told the same story that the game told. We had a lot of opportunities to score and get the game manageable and we just didn’t do it.”

Fixing The Fixable

A major problem was the lack of red-zone execution. SMU had five trips into the Cincinnati red zone and got exactly one touchdown out of it. “I don’t know that I have ever coached in a game in 25 years, or however long, where you run that many plays and you have that little to show from those plays.”

And of course, there were the dropped passes. That can be a story on its own every week. We had unofficially counted nine by the end of the game Saturday. Dykes said Monday there were 10.

There were two big Cincinnati runs at the end of the game that put the stats and the score into a whole different category entirely. Dykes said he felt his defense played well enough for the first three-and-a-half quarters to keep SMU in the game.

The Character Response

So now we circle back to the question of losses showing character. Dykes said he is pleased with the team’s response thus far. They had early morning practices Sunday and then voluntary weight room workouts on Monday. They had 100% player participation in the voluntary workout. “I think that tells you everything you need to know about their mindset,” Dykes said. “They’re excited to get back to work. They know that we certainly didn’t put our best foot forward on Saturday. They want to play better, and they know we are going to have play better this week than we did last week.”

This week, in fact, means preparing for the Navy Midshipmen and the triple-option offense. It is notoriously one of the tougher offenses in the country to plan for because so few teams use it. SMU generally devotes a handful of individual Spring practices to do some prep work for this game, but of course, there was pretty much was no Spring camp.

The Challenge With Navy

The Midshipmen come in at 3-3 overall and 3-1 in the AAC. They were beaten soundly in week one by a currently undefeated BYU team. They also lost to a very talented Houston team last week. Senior quarterback Dalen Morris has thrown 39 passes all season. That is one game for SMU’s Shane Buechele. But that is who Navy is. They don’t get the five-star recruits because of the demands of the academy, so they create a system that works for who they have. “They have a culture. What I mean by that is they have a belief system their players believe in,” Dykes said. “They’ve got a style of play that is unusual and is difficult to prepare for. It requires attention to the details, repetition, and it is a great equalizer.”

With the triple option, there is constant motion in the backfield, and the quarterback has two running backs at his disposal on every play as well as being a skilled ball carrier himself. Nelson Smith leads the team in yardage with 394 yards on 66 carries this season. Jamale Carothers has the most carries with 82, (for 328 yards). Morris himself has 60 carries for 135 yards. Conversely, SMU has only one healthy player with more than 60 carries, running back Ulysses Bentley IV, (90 carries for 572 yards).

Discipline…And Character

The key to defending the triple option, according to Dykes, is to play assignment football. It is about sticking to the man you are assigned to and not biting on the quarterback fakes that come on almost every play. On the offensive side of the ball, there is more pressure to execute and produce. The triple-option burns so much clock running the ball, that SMU is going to get fewer possessions on offense. That means no empty trips to the red zone like last week. “There is less margin for error,” Dykes said. You can’t afford to bust plays. You can’t afford to drop balls. And you can’t afford to not be precise and execute at a high level because you are not going to get the ball that many times.”

That goes against what SMU did last week for sure, and for parts of each game this season. Focus and character will be revealed Saturday.