SMU is turning back the clock, just not far enough

SMU Mustangs

For the second game in a row SMU fans might have experienced flashbacks to the days of Hawaiian shirts, leis, and June Jones’ run and shoot brand of offense.

The days prior to the one-time SMU Head Coach and current CFL Offensive Coordinator’s ugly break-up with the program are more-or-less fondly remembered by SMU faithful for the quick hitting and prolific passing attack that he installed.

Sure, it might have gotten boring after the seventh consecutive bubble screen, and we never did match the success that the system achieved during Jones’ tenure at Hawaii with Colt Brennan leading the charge, but there was something oddly entertaining about watching Garrett Gilbert throw 50 passes a game and there were some memorable moments.

Clearly whatever we had been doing for the previous 20 years since the death penalty wasn’t working so it was a welcome change.

Current SMU Head Coach Chad Morris (and eventual Texas A&M head coach as SMU pessimists will tell you) seems to have ripped a page right out of the book of his predecessor as the Ponies are taking a different approach on offense of late.

To add some context, SMU boasts one of the most explosive offenses in the country, or at least they did prior to the 22 point dud against Houston Saturday evening.

The Mustangs are led by a stable of running backs in Ke’Mon Freeman, Braeden West and Xavier Jones and two stud receivers in Cole Beasley impersonator, Trey Quinn, and the best receiver in the nation, Courtland Sutton (don’t @ me). The ‘Stangs entered Saturday’s disappointing close-but-at-the-same-time-not-that-close loss to Houston averaging 48 points per game.

They had scored in every single quarter of the season and were the only team to notch 35 points in each outing –all of which was done despite sketchy at best QB play.

Two weeks ago, oft-maligned SMU QB Ben Hicks entered the Mustangs’ eventual victory over UConn with a sub-50-percent completion rate having connected on only 62 of his 127 pass attempts for an average of 16 yards per completion.

If you wanted to be a dick, which I do, you could say that each throw was literally worse than a coin flip. All of that is a not so distant memory as in the last two games Hicks has connected on 68 of 95 passes (71 percent) for an average of just under 10 yards per completion, including 41 of 58 this past Saturday.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an amateur college football writer to realize what is causing this: the screen pass is back on the menu.

The logic behind the shift is sound even if the results have been relatively mixed so far. SMU has two incredibly talented playmaking wide receivers and Hicks has struggled to get them involved at times.

The quarterback’s erratic play has frustrated and dazzled in equal parts as has his ability to find his weapons. If the sub-50 percent completion rate hasn’t sold you on the concept just look at Sutton’s one catch for a grand total of zero yards in a loss to TCU, which came only two weeks after his four-touchdown performance vs North Texas.

Obviously, there are other underlying factors at work in that week-to-week comparison, like strength of opponent, but the point still stands and review of any game film will lead you to the same assessment – wildly inconsistent QB play.

Coach Morris and co. have addressed this by taking the air out of the ball and focusing on quick screens, outs, and slants. In doing so they have increased the margin for error on each throw while also making the decisions much simpler for the red shirt sophomore QB.

The recent flurry of screens has taken pressure off Hicks and in turn allowed more opportunities for our playmakers to, well, make plays. Quinn is possibly the biggest beneficiary of this new approach as he has put up some serious eye-grabbing numbers including 32 catches over the last two games and an SMU record 11 catches in a single half against UConn.

It’s great that some of Hicks’ stats are improved and that some of the haters (and quasi-haters like myself) had to shut up following the impressive fourth quarter performance against Connecticut, but while the offense is still racking up yards, it’s clear that some of the same issues that have plagued SMU remain.

The common denominator in the L’s this season is leaving points on the table. Without even touching on the special team woes or the four missed PATs this season, the main problem is that the offense has an issue getting into the end zone from close range.

Red zone offense might seem like a weird thing to complain about given that prior to the Houston game the Ponies had scored on every trip (excluding kneeling out the clock), but in both losses SMU has been forced to settle for four field goals.

Field goals, and really just kicking in general (which I promised not to rant about), are far from a strength and SMU won’t win many games on the leg of their kicker. Some credit is due to the coaching staff as we have seen some red zone gimmicks manufacture six points on several occasions this season.

Direct snaps to Courtland Sutton and Ke’mon Freeman as well as some packages with dual-threat backup QB DJ Gillens have found pay dirt. Those plays aside, the straight-up trick-free red zone offense has left a lot of room for improvement in finishing drives and Hicks is still below 50 percent inside the 20.

Both of Hicks’ fourth-quarter, red-zone interceptions against the Cougars played right into every SMU fan’s inner masochist. The fact that they both sealed any small hope of a comeback truly iced the cake in what was already an incredibly frustrating game in which the Mustangs had more total offense than the Cougars. Hopefully this isn’t a sign of the return of a terrible habit that plagued his freshman season in 2016.

It does feel silly to some degree to complain about an offense that has been so prolific (especially compared to the shit show that was the 1-11 2014 season), but with a defense that is so insistent on arm tackling and playing two hand touch, the type of performance that SMU came up with in their 22 point outing against Houston will not win the Mustangs many games.

Saturday was a setback but the trajectory is still positive and Coach Morris has the weapons and the offensive mind to bounce back and continue to give opposing defensive coordinators reasons to stay up at night.

To truly get the Pony Express back on track SMU very well might need to continue turning back the clock – maybe they can find a way to turn it all the way back to 1982, you know, without any paper bags of money or gold Trans-Ams. Pony Up!