Whatever rest and reset the SMU Mustangs got with the extra week off after last week’s postponement, it didn’t work. SMU easily handled by East Carolina 52-38 in Greenville Saturday afternoon, has a lot of soul searching to do. SMU made the game look close at the end, but at one point, they were down by 5+ touchdowns. That is always going to make it hard to win.
SMU Easily Handled By East Carolina
Coming into the game with a 2-6 record gave the Pirates nothing to lose, and they played like it. ECU played free and loose in scoring on every possession in the first half in route to a 45-7 lead at the intermission. “We made some critical mistakes in the first half, and didn’t play well. We dug ourselves too big of a hole,” head coach Sonny Dykes said after the game.
On its second drive of the game, ECU was stuck at its own 35-yard line. On 4th and 7, punter Luke Larsen instead took off from the backfield over the right side and ran for 25 yards to the SMU 40-yard line. Three plays later, Keaton Mitchell ran it in from nine yards out for the 7-0 lead.
SMU’s lack of ability to manufacture a running game early on kept them from ginning up any type of sustained offense. On fourth and one from his own 34-yard line, Tyler Lavine was stuffed for no gain. There was little push through much of the early going from the offensive line. SMU got only 43 yards rushing in the first half.
Getting Down Early
With the short field, ECU needed only three plays to convert. Quarterback Holton Ahlers rolled to his left and threw back across his body to Blake Proehl for the 11-yard touchdown pass and the 14-0 lead.
SMU got on the scoreboard for its only first half score. Quarterback Shane Buechele went four of five passing in a 75 yard, 10-play drive. They also got a combined 31 yards rushing between Ulysses Bentley IV and Lavine. Considering they only had 43 yards rushing for the half, this was the bulk of it. Buechele capped the drive with a six-yard pass to tight end Kylen Granson to cut the deficit to 14-7. That was the last time the game was competitive.
On the next drive, ECU head coach Mike Houston went deep into the playbook again. Tyler Snead took the pitch on the receiver end around. But he pulled up and threw it 35 yards downfield to Proehl for another touchdown on the last play of the quarter. The Pirates had expanded the lead to 21-7.
Those self-inflicted wounds that Dykes talks about? The Mustangs had a new one Saturday. Buechele completed a four-yard screen pass to Judah Bell. But in the tackling scrum, Bell had the ball ripped from him by Jireh Wilson who ran it back 39 yards to the SMU 32-yard line. Three plays later, Ahlers hit C.J. Johnson with a perfect back shoulder pass in the end zone for the 28-7 lead.
Ahlers threw two more touchdown passes in the quarter. One was to Mitchell, who stumbled his way through the last seven yards to get into the end zone. The second was aided by a 35-yard punt return to the SMU 30-yard line by Snead. He would later be rewarded with the touchdown catch, when Ahlers threw rope from 6 yards out on Snead’s post pattern. That second drive lasted all of :45 seconds.
Jake Verity added a 29-yard field goal towards the end of the half and it 45-7 Pirates.
East Carolina had a 337-176 advantage in total yards. ECU was six for the six in the red zone and had scored on every possession in the half. Dykes said there was not much he needed to say at halftime because it was obvious the Mustangs were getting outplayed. “I challenged them,” Dykes said. “I said you are going to be held accountable for the way you play the second half. We needed to see better effort, and better coaching, and better everything in the second half.”
Mustangs Try To Make A Game Of It
SMU outscored ECU 17-0 in the third quarter to make the game look slightly viable. Buechele rushed for a touchdown a one-yard quarterback keeper. He also completed a pass, throwing off his back foot, for 26 yards to Bentley for a touchdown. Chris Naggar added a 36-yard field goal, and the ECU lead was down to 45-24 to start the fourth quarter.
ECU answered on its first drive of the fourth quarter culminated with Darrius Pinnix running it in from two yards out. The Pirates lead was back up 28 points at 52-24.
SMU got a five-yard touchdown run from Lavine. ECU’s Mitchell fumbled the ensuing pooch kick and the Mustangs recovered it at the Pirates 14-yard line. Two plays later, Lavine ran it in from four yards out to make the game appear close at 52-38.
Mistakes End The Run
SMU had two more chances to close the gap by Buechele threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions. He finished the game 34-49 for 310, two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was his 12th 300+ yard throwing performance at SMU. But the Mustangs managed only 70 yards rushing. “I think a big part of it was we were getting our a** kicked up front,” Dykes said. “I thought they did a good job triggering and getting their safeties down. They played really aggressive.” Dykes said the offensive play calling did not have any plays going over the top to keep the ECU defense honest.
Conversely, Ahlers was 20-29 passing for 298 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. ECU also pulled out 160 yards rushing.
A Lot Of Work To Do
Dykes was asked for specifics after the game on what did not work well early Saturday in getting into that huge hole. “I would say the offense, the defense, and the special teams in the first half.
There will be a lot of credit given to SMU for not giving up and fighting back. But it is hard to be competitive when you dig such a big hole to begin the game. “I expected to play better because we were rested and fresh,” Dykes said. “We’ve got to go back and figure out what’s wrong and why we didn’t perform at a high level today, because we certainly didn’t.”
They dropped to 7-3 overall and are scheduled to play a make-up game against Houston next week.