Hayden Moore took the snap from shotgun formation. He dropped back. He ducked his head and tried to push forward a little as the pocket collapsed. As he was wrapped up, he churned his legs to stay upright and then the ball somehow popped out of his hands, got batted around and wound up with Kyran Mitchell for an interception. That is how Cincinnati’s game against SMU ended last year. The turnover sealed a 31-28 overtime win for the Mustangs and was one of several disappointing finishes in another lost year for the Bearcats.
But we’re here to talk about the Mustangs. They are a few years ahead of UC on the rebuild path. While the Bearcats are trying to take those first steps, SMU finally arrived in 2017, going 7-6 and making its first bowl game since 2012. Such a year earned head coach Chad Morris a lucrative deal to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks. On top of that, SMU lost two of the best players in the American Athletic Conference, as wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn, who combined for 2,321 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, headed off to the NFL.
Despite those departures, SMU isn’t starting over entirely in 2018, as they brought in former Louisiana Tech and Cal offensive architect Sonny Dykes to be the head coach. Dykes was unable to lift Cal to the upper echelon of the Pac-12, but he had a pretty tremendous time at Louisiana Tech, becoming a much sought after offensive mind in the process. Now he will get to ply his trade on a SMU team that still has plenty of offensive punch and has a chance to contend in 2018.
When Do They Play Cincinnati?
Halloween falls on a weird day this year. Since its on Wednesday, both the weekend before and after can be considered the appropriate time to celebrate aside from trick or treating. While there’s not really an official thing called “The Halloween Game,” I think there should be. For my money, if you are celebrating Halloween, it better be in October so this Oct. 27 matchup is this year’s Halloween Game. Hopefully there are plenty of people dressing up as Bearcats and Mustangs in Dallas when UC visits SMU at Gerald J. Ford Stadium this fall.
What They Do Well
When you’ve got receiving options like Sutton and Quinn (not to mention James Proche), you throw the ball as much as humanly possible. The Mustangs ranked third in the AAC in passing attempts in 2017 and racked up 3,823 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air. Quarterback Ben Hicks had to carry a heavy load because of it, but he was clearly up to the challenge, completing more passes than UCF’s McKenzie Milton and USF’s Quinton Flowers, who both got more headlines than the Mustangs signal caller.
Hicks and the passing attack weren’t just utilizing quick passes for short yardage. The Mustangs had 28 passing plays of 30 or more yards and a league-high of 10 passing plays of 50 or more yards.
On top of the passing superiority, the Mustangs also employed not one, not two but three supremely talented running backs in Xavier Jones, Ke’Mon Freeman and Braeden West, who are all back this season after accounting for more than 2,000 combined rushing yards last year.
Thanks to so much talent at the skill positions, the Mustangs ranked 11th in the country in offensive S&P+. That led to lots of scoring (37.8 PPG) and solid work in the red zone, as they scored touchdowns on nearly 65 percent of their trips.
While its defense wasn’t nearly as prolific as the offense, SMU made up for it by forcing turnovers, something that literally won a game against UC. The Mustangs had 23 turnovers and also forced plenty of fumbles, keeping opposing offenses on edge. The pass rush helped there as well, with the Mustangs third in the AAC in sacks (31).
What They Don’t Do Well
OK its time to dive further into the mostly unsightly defensive work from the 2017 Mustangs. They ranked a pretty atrocious 119th in defensive S&P+ and were extremely prone to giving up large chunks of yardage and points. That’s how a team like UC, which finished dead last in the AAC in total offense, somehow racked up 438 yards against them. SMU was especially weak against the run, with opposing teams scoring 33 touchdowns on the ground and rushing for 2,700 yards. SMU also failed to stop big plays nearly as much as they succeeded at collecting them. Only UConn allowed more plays of 10 or more yards among AAC teams, while SMU allowed 27 plays of 40 or more yards.
Making matters worse, SMU also struggled on special teams, ranking 98th in the country in special teams S&P+. Specifically, the Mustangs had trouble on kickoff returns, which there were plenty of due to the offense’s scoring efficiency.
Players to Watch
Kyran Mitchell, LB
Mitchell finished SMU’s win over UC and is one of the best linebackers in the AAC.
Ben Hicks, QB
Hicks may not have his two favorite targets, but it would be foolish to sleep on a guy that piled up 3,569 yards and 33 touchdowns with a 140.0 QB rating.
Xavier Jones, Braeden West and Ke’Mon Freeman, RB
Jones was the lead back (1,075 yards, 9 TDs), but Freeman (543, 11) and West (568, 2) both had plenty of chances, while all three were capable receiving threats.
James Proche, WR
Proche is getting a big promotion after his turn as a productive No. 3 option last year. He had 816 yards and six touchdowns on only 40 receptions.
Tyeson Neals, DE
Justin Lawler was SMU’s best pass rusher on the defensive line last year (15.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks), but Neals is a worthy heir to that title (8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks).
Jordan Wyatt, CB
Wyatt was absolutely electric in the secondary, collecting four interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns) and eight pass deflections. He also forced three fumbles and tallied 4.5 tackles for loss.
Mikial Onu, S
The talent in the secondary is real, with Onu a tackling machine (105) who defends well against the pass, evidenced by his two interceptions and seven passes deflections.
The Bearcats and Mustangs got hooked up in a pretty quality football game when they met last year. The Bearcats actually held a 20-14 lead at one point, but Hicks and Sutton went wild to put SMU in a position to win late in the game. Thanks to Devin Gray (who caught a 21-yard, game-tying touchdown pass and the ensuing two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter), the contest went to overtime. The Mustangs settled for a field goal to start the extra session. The Bearcats answered with two three-yard runs from Mike Boone and that odd interception from Moore.
That bit of revenge was three years in the making for the Mustangs, who had not faced UC since losing 41-3 to them in 2014. UC also beat SMU 28-25 in 2013 and that ends the recap of this short-lived all-time series.
Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?
If you asked this question two years ago, the answer would be an undeniable yes. However, the Bearcats beat the Mustangs three times, all by double digits, this past season. SMU will bounce back, but if we’re just going on recent results, the answer is no.
The Mustangs lost Sutton, Quinn, Lawler and their head coach and they are still loaded. The Bearcats would be smart to follow in the Mustangs’ footsteps when it comes to rebuilding. As for how they will fare in this game, it’s going to be a scary Halloween.