There is work to do. There is always work to do. But Saturday’s win at home over Navy was as close to a complete game as SMU has played this season. Yet head coach Sonny Dykes says even at 6-1, there is still much for the Mustangs to learn.
First of all, there was balance last week. Shane Buechele threw for 300 yards, and the running game produced another 255. Ulysses Bentley was the leading rusher with 149 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. But Tyler Lavine also had his first multi-touchdown game with two touchdowns and 74 yards on five carries. For that, the looks go to the offensive line. “I thought we played probably the best game up front, certainly from a run perspective, in our three years here,” Dykes said this week. “I thought our pad level was outstanding. And I thought our steps were good. And I thought we played really good fundamentally.” Dykes said they knew they were going to have to rely on the run game because Navy throws so many different looks at a team defensively.
SMU has struggled with consistency all season long. They had some late game lapses on both sides of the ball in the Navy win also, but there were certainly relatively fewer of them. From the perspective of putting together 60 minutes, the Mustangs had at least a solid 52 against Navy. Dykes said, “We didn’t get off to a start great. It took us a while to get settled in. You have to give Navy credit. They had a good game plan. And they had some stuff we hadn’t seen. They had some stuff we had to adjust to and try to figure out what was going on. Once we did that I thought our guys really settled in and played well for a long stretch of the game,” Dykes said.
The trick is that there are still those late game lapses. “We are trying to get to the point where we can finish games better when we have big leads,” Dykes said. “We’re still learning how to do that. I think we’re still learning how to play with a lead. We’re still trying to build some young depth.”
Certainly SMU struggled to keep their collective foot on the accelerator in the North Texas, Memphis and Navy games. Case in point, the Mustangs had a 28-14 lead against Texas State before being outscored 10-3 in the close quarter-and-a-half. Last Saturday against Navy, SMU was cruising 45-17 at the end of the three quarters before being outscored 20-6 in what was essentially garbage time.
Dykes said he took some of his starters out of the game too early. With a big lead he was trying to get some game experience for some of his younger players. But then that fourth quarter lead shrunk quickly. “Honestly I probably sent the wrong message and probably took some of the guys out too early. There were still 10 minutes to go in the game I think when you take your starters out, it’s hard to put them back in and for those guys to perform at a really high level,” Dykes said. But at the same time you want to play your young players too.”
He said even as a coaching staff they are learning where those thresholds are with keeping the foot on the gas with the starters but getting much needed experience for depth purposes with the reserves.
Dykes figures to get another chance to work on that this week. The Mustangs travel to Philadelphia to play Temple. The Owls are 1-3 on the season. They just got manhandled 38-3 by Tulane last weekend. Temple has had to juggle lineups on a weekly basis because of COVID cases. Last week they were playing without starting quarterback Anthony Russo. The numbers bear out the issues. Tulane outgained Temple 555-204 in total yards. The Owls gained only 77 yards rushing.
The constantly evolving line-up can be hard to plan for if you are an opposing coach trying to scout game film. Dykes said he is going back to week one and assuming those starters will be who his team faces. Otherwise you get caught up in the inconsistency of the opponent. Temple has spent much of the season building a big hole for its offense on first and second down and winding up in third and long situations. The Owls are converting on only 45% of their third down plays. Quarterbacks Re-al Mitchell, Trad Beatty, and Russo have combined for only nine passing touchdowns with seven interceptions.
The Mustangs are going to get their chance to hit that next level and shut an opponent down. It will be a matter of how much they have learned.