By Zach Walker
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of things to be happy about, unless sorrow-filled binge drinking is your forte. The SMU Mustangs, this season reminded me of a line, “you have the heart, you just don’t have the soul. No, you have the soul, but you don’t have the heart. Scratch that, you have the heart and the soul, but you don’t have the talent.”
The Mustangs clearly had aspirations about their season, because they didn’t schedule a division two school to soften their schedule. Instead, they scheduled, arguably, the three strongest teams in Texas college football in the now, co-Big 12 champions TCU and Baylor, and SEC’s own Texas A&M. On top of those strong opponents, they scheduled North Texas, fresh off of their Heart of Dallas bowl victory.
As far as the way they were going to get wins, in June Jones’ “Run and Shoot” offense, the quarterback is the key. Going into the first game, against Baylor, who was opening their brand new super excellent stadium, I got the feeling that Coach Jones didn’t truly believe that Neal Burcham was the guy for the offense because he put Matt Davis into the game on the third drive. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “it’s Baylor, if you don’t score often, it’s over, and June Jones was trying to up the pace.” To my own thoughts, I say, great points, but if he had planned to use Matt Davis that early in the game, why not just start him, given their contrasting styles, Burcham is a statue for the pocket and Davis is a slasher with wheels. If Burcham was inconsistent, going to a fire-cracker, high rev player in Davis is bold. In the Baylor game, had Jonathan Yenga not had a perfect, and seemingly innocent hit on Bryce Petty, that game could have gotten terribly embarrassing, but it was always going to be a blow out but still managed to be a shutout against a powerhouse, so really, no harm done.
The North Texas game, however, was not supposed to be a one-sided contest. The first quarter was a game by two teams that had struggled the previous week, and just tried to establish some rhythm. The Mean Green did, and the Mustangs couldn’t, and while the offense could sustain drives, the defense was just being left out to burn, and the game got ugly and would have been a shutout if not for Kolney Cassel’s touchdown pass to Nate Halverson as the game ended for the only score of the season for SMU.
It was a seriously rough start, but no one knew what to expect, especially June Jones resigning from his head coaching position. A rough start was made into a season long search for structure following Jones’ vacancy. Defensive coordinator Tom Mason took over as interim head coach, and luckily for him the next two games would be at home against some lighter opponents. It was just the number six ranked team in the nation, Texas A&M Aggies. The offense changed quarterbacks again, from Kolney Cassel to Garrett Krstich and the Aggies racked up eight total sacks and only allowed the Mustangs to kick three field goals, making only two and being dismantled 58 to 6. After that showing, optimism was low and expectations were lower against TCU for the “Battle for the Iron Skillet” game. This would be another whooping, the second shutout of the season and the Frogs rounded up nine total sacks and force three turnovers.
Well, it’s gone as bad as it could have possibly gone through the first four games: 0-4; all non-conference losses; three different starters, four quarterbacks used; shutout twice; one touchdown through four games; head coach with a complex offensive system resigned. But at least they haven’t gotten into American conference games, because things could really perk once the Mustangs dive into conference games.
The first AAC game was against the 22nd ranked East Carolina Pirates, but it would be the best game that the Mustangs would put together to this point in the season, which isn’t saying much. Shane Carden and Justin Hardy connected for three touchdowns, but Garrett Krstich would keep the Mustangs in the game but couldn’t overcome the Pirates’ early lead. Optimism was high coming home and playing Cincinnati. But the hope balloon popped by the end of the first half, as Garrett Krstich was sacked by Jeff Luc and fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Bearcats for a touchdown and it just felt helpless at that point, like the momentum wouldn’t swing back. It wouldn’t and the game would end 41 to 3.
After the big loss to the Bearcats at home, they had the chance to right the ship against the 3-3 Memphis Tigers. The Tigers took the game and ran away with it. Despite scoring their first touchdown at home, the Tigers would rack up nearly 600 yards in a 48 to 10 pounding of SMU, and mark the end of the Garrett Krstich time as the starter. It was Matt Davis’ team from there on out.
Davis’ first start would be against the very beatable Tulsa Golden Hurricane and, while the game ended in another loss, the switch to Davis looked very explosive for the Mustangs, rushing for 181 yards and throwing 212, but with his style of play comes a lot of turnover possibilities and those turnovers happened. Three turnovers, two in game time, meanwhile Tulsa’s Dane Evans threw five touchdowns and zero interceptions, but the Matt Davis led Mustangs would roll over and scored fifteen points in the fourth to make it a one touchdown game, but the refs would insert themselves into the game in the tight tail-end of the game and threw down two penalties totaling 30 yards for Tulsa and aiding Tulsa to ample field goal position. The game ended in another loss, but like the East Carolina game, the Mustangs would return home with genuine reasons to look forward to the game against the next opponent, this time the South Florida Bulls.
The game was cold, wet, and covered in a film of haze, and the Mustangs were the aggressors. The Bulls’ Marlon Mack was both impressive and under-utilized, and the Mustangs were very strong on getting the Bulls off of the field on third downs, and they held the lead for 59 minutes and 56 seconds, as Mike White, having replaced Quinton Flowers in the early stages of the fourth quarter, having already leading a touchdown drive, he lead a six minute drive to crush the hopes of a home victory for the Mustangs with a four yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis. So somber after that loss, just super bummed.
At UCF was a beat down with the game being lost in the first quarter, with the Knights scoring 27 points in the opening stanza, and might have actually been the season low-point for the offense, only gaining 116 total yards the entire game. The Houston game was a 30/30 game, and in the first 30 minutes, the Mustangs were the better team, forcing the Cougars off the field on all eight third down attempts in the first half. But, in the tale of two halves, Houston exploded scoring on their first three drives of the third quarter to pull away from the Mustangs. And by the end of the game, Matt Davis was sat down for the Mustangs final drive.
One game left. One final chance to dodge a winless season. Against a struggling Connecticut team, during a cold game away from home, the Mustangs wouldn’t take this game lightly. The defense played out of their skin, forcing five Huskies turnovers and allowing only five third down conversions out of fourteen tries. Davis over the last three games coming into the UConn game, wasn’t being the same type of dual threat that his was against Tulsa, and that’s a true dual threat, and that return to form is the reason why the game was both played close to the chest and SMU was able to sustain drives and drain clock and win the game.
For Coach Tom Mason, I can’t begin to imagine what that ice bucket bath at the end of the Connecticut game felt like. Good, not strong enough. Vindicating, might be the closest, as an observer. Coach Mason had his team prepped to play on five of his ten games, and at one point in every game, that preparation faded when the score or the game started to slide away from the Mustangs.
For the future in Head Coach Chad Morris, I think SMU has a solid direction. Morris’ background in the state of Texas as a championship winning Head Coach of high school football, you can sense that he’ll know the state of Texas when it comes to recruiting. And if people out there don’t know the kind of players that Morris is able to shape, here’s a short list: Colts tight end Dwayne Allen; Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins; Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins; Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant; Jets sixth round quarterback Tajh Boyd. And no one has to squint to see the current group of Mustangs being molded into those same style of players. Jeremiah Gaines is roughly the same size as Dwayne Allen, Darius Joseph is proven to have the ability to catch 100+ passes in a season, and Matt Davis is in the same mold as Tajh Boyd, if not a more dynamic runner. Coach Morris is sitting on the Hilltop, inheriting a 1-11 team, losing mentally tough seniors on defense, and coming into a conference that’s very competitive and can be winnable sooner than people will give SMU credit for.
To wrap up this season, it’s been tough, but with the new regime, these SMU Mustangs can be restored to their former glory.