Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Mustang Defense and Regular Season

Now that we've examined what these two teams are primarily known for, you'd think that their lackluster defenses would be less interesting to dissect. And you'd be (mostly) right. Without divulging much of the analysis to come, let's just say the less said about these two defenses, the better. There are intriguing bright spots to be found for those with the persistence to unearth them -- like the Mustangs' Chase Kennemer here -- but those are infrequent bits of flotsam floating in an entire sea of "Eeeeeeeesh!" (The NCAA's statistical rankings were my inspiration again this week)

SMU's defense yields 404 yards per game, only slightly more atrocious than Nevada's 398.92 per game. And neither team has much room to brag when it comes to surrendering points (29.08 for SMU, 27.17 for Nevada).

But each team boasts a unique strength that usually gets lost amidst the criticism and flak their respective units get. Here at PWtW, you probably know all about Dontay Moch's impressive tackles for loss stats and the fact that Nevada's rushing defense has remained fairly good in spite of its secondary, right? Well, have you heard of the feats of SMU's secondary? Probably not, because when you're giving up 234.83 passing yards per game, the fact remains that you're still not that good, even if your opponent is second-to-worst in the country in that category. But surprisingly enough, the Mustangs have forced 27 turnovers this year -- 16 of which have been interceptions. Their pass efficiency defense is worth a double-take, too: 122.07, which makes them the third-best team in that category the Pack will have faced this year behind Boise State and Louisiana Tech.

Going back again to Kennemer for a minute, this kid is incredible. On a defense of pretty unremarkable little boys, this guy stands out as The Man. He averages 6.33 solo tackles and 10.5 total tackles per game -- both in the top twenty in the nation. Needless to say, his efforts will be critical if the Pistol ground game is to be slowed down in any way.

The rest of the defensive stats of note are kind of a mixed bag that slightly favor the Pack. SMU has been a little better at preventing red zone scores (80% scores surrendered, next to Nevada's 88%) and the aforementioned interceptions, while Nevada has the Mustangs beat in sacks (28 to 20), tackles for loss (83 to 61) and slightly beat in third and fourth down conversion percentage defense. Both teams were about equal at recovering fumbles (Nevada 10, SMU 11) and first downs allowed per game (19.5 to 20.08).

Now here's how the Mustangs reversed last year's 1-11 effort and reached their first bowl game since the pre-death penalty 1980s:

1-0: SMU 31, Stephen F. Austin 23 (Dallas)

SMU needed a 17-point fourth quarter rally and 6 turnovers to beat this very game FCS opponent.

2-0: SMU 35, UAB 33 (Birmingham)

The Mustangs got off to a quick lead, but saw it falter in the second half before finishing off the Blazers.

2-1: Washington State 30, SMU 27 in OT (Pullman)

Along with Nevada's loss at Colorado State, a bizarre, baffling loss to a team they should've easily beaten in retrospect.

2-2: #11 TCU 39, SMU 14 (Fort Worth)

SMU actually led for about a quarter and a half, but in the end the TCU defense proved to be too much to handle.

3-2: SMU 28, East Carolina 21 (Dallas)

Lacking in most categories except the final score, this was by far the Mustangs' best win of the regular season.

3-3: Navy 38, SMU 35 in OT (Dallas)

Another heartbreaking overtime loss, especially since the Midshipmen never led until nearly halfway through the fourth quarter.

3-4: #17 Houston 38, SMU 15 (Houston)

The good news? Case Keenum was held to 233 yards passing and one TD.

4-4: SMU 27, Tulsa 13 (Tulsa)

Kyle Padron's first start was a good one, and the Mustangs iced it with two minutes left.

5-4: SMU 31, Rice 28 (Dallas)

Three blocked kicks by SMU -- one returned for a TD -- were the difference makers in this battle of former WAC foes.

6-4: SMU 35, UTEP 31 (Dallas)

Probably the wildest game of the year, the Mustangs once again won where it counted most: the scoreboard.

6-5: Marshall 34, SMU 31 (Huntington)

Much like the Navy game in that SMU was burned on the ground and came up just short in the end.

7-5: SMU 26, Tulane 21 (Dallas)

The Mustangs led most of the way, but needed a late TD to seal the deal and guarantee themselves a bowl.

What stands out most about how SMU's season unfolded were the close ones, which is to say a whopping nine of their twelve games to date. Nine games were decided by 8 or fewer points, and the Mustangs went 6-3 in those contests. For a team that was, as June Jones himself put it after the Tulane win "browbeat worse than any players [he'd] ever seen," this is a big psychological advantage to carry into a bowl game. Nevada played only one game that was decided by less than 10 points. Quite simply, if the game is close, SMU will have the confidence -- and perhaps the ability -- to pull off the upset. Scoring on them early and often will be critical for the Pack, but maintaining a comfortable lead once it's been attained will be even more important.

So there you have it. By now you should have all the relevant stats you need to know so you hopefully don't end up looking like one of the many trash-talking Fresno State fans who got served a heaping helping of humble pie on Saturday. This blogger, at least, would be laughing more if the game hadn't cost him so many of those damn confidence points in the ESPN Bowl Mania contest. Will we have another entry up before Thursday? Not sure, but keep checking back in.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Breaking Down the Mustang Roster and Offense

Here's one means by which we'll take a closer look at the SMU Mustangs leading up to the Hawai'i Bowl on December 24th.

According to their athletic department's most recent press release upon receiving the bowl invitation, like in most of their previous games this season the Mustangs will be noticeably younger than their opponent. If the depth chart in the release holds true up to the game itself, the SMU starting lineup will look something like this:

5 Freshmen (QB, LB, CB, holder and long snapper)
10 Sophomores (4 OL, 2 WR, 2 DL, FS and short snapper)
6 Juniors (RB, WR, DT, 2 LB and P/PK/KOS)
7 Seniors (OL, WR, LB, CB, SS, PR and KR)

Not surprisingly, the Mustangs' most eye-catchingly productive players are upperclassmen, both on offense (receiver Emmanuel Sanders and running back Shawnbrey McNeal) and defense (linebacker Chase Kennemer and safety Rock Dennis -- yes, that's his actual name). No fewer than four true freshmen are currently pegged as starters for the Mustangs in this game -- two on defense and one each on offense and special teams. To give you an idea of how uncommon this is, L.J. Washington and Duke Williams were the only true freshmen who started for Nevada this year. This makes SMU's turnaround from 1-11 last year to 7-5 now all the more commendable and is proof of why the future is beginning to look so bright in Dallas nowadays.

On offense, the Mustangs mostly run four wide receiver sets with a single running back not unlike June Jones' offenses at Hawai'i. However, for a coach whose principal claim to fame is airing it out from a shotgun spread of players, the Mustangs boast a surprisingly balanced offense. They average just under 36 pass attempts per game and just under 30 rushes per game, whose combined efforts have yielded about 380 total yards of offense per game -- nothing too spectacular, but good enough to win more often than lose.

Much has already been said about each team's offensive strengths playing into the opponent's defensive weakness, but in a way the Mustangs' passing attack isn't all that different than the one Nevada already boasts -- at least, on a per catch basis, anyway. Yes, the Mustangs do throw more often per game (35.9 throws per game, compared to Nevada's 22) and have more passing yards to show for it as a result (267.2 yards per game, compared to Nevada's 159.3). To put that in perspective, Hawai'i, Notre Dame, Idaho and Missouri all finished the season averaging more passing yards per game than SMU, and they're ranked right around where Boise State is in that category. They're in the top quarter in the nation in passing yards, but they're about in the middle of the pack when compared to some of the other offenses Nevada has faced this year.

But in spite of what sound like fairly daunting numbers, there's actually very little separation between the two teams when it comes down to effectiveness: Nevada averages 12.3 yards per completed pass. The Mustangs? 12.6 yards. Both receiving corps have exactly 20 touchdown catches each to show for their efforts, as well. And what about interceptions? Kaepernick has thrown a paltry 5 all year long, while the duties shared by Bo Levi Mitchell and Kyle Padron netted 14 between the two of them. You could make the argument that, were they to start throwing more often, Nevada's passing numbers wouldn't be all that different from SMU's.

But one thing that stood out to me while examining SMU's offense was third downs. The Mustangs have only converted about 29% of their third downs on the season, which is definitely lacking next to Nevada's beefier 51%. The Pack even has the advantage on fourth downs, too: 73% compared to SMU's 40%. As good as the Mustang offense looks at times, they're vulnerable on third down, and keeping them (relatively) in check will be a matter of the defense making sure it doesn't let too many easy stops slip past them and the offense making the most of its chances to score.

I found this site to be of great value in my analysis for this entry. In the next entry, I'll take a in-depth look at what the Mustangs will bring to Honolulu on defense, and analyze how their regular season transpired.

Also, this is already old news for those of you who regularly visit, but the Pack netted some pretty impressive mid-year signings today. If you're a premium subscriber (why you wouldn't be I have no idea) you can read all about them there.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Don't Know Much About...SMU

Bowls were finally announced yesterday.

First observation: as much as Packfan7 and others like to rag on Fresno State fans, they should be commended for taking this one for the team. Getting shipped off to the same bowl game two years in a row against a mediocre opponent is the equivalent of diving on a live grenade. Twice. Hopefully for the WAC's sake they can take care of business against a pretty average-looking Wyoming team.

Second observation: the folks at the Fiesta Bowl and the BCS have some balls. Big, shiny, chrome-plated balls that light up and play a tune that sings "You suck because you don't have musical balls." In the next few days, you're going to hear a lot about the outrage and controversy surrounding the Fiesta Bowl match-up, and a lot of it will be totally justified. But for one second, take a step back and marvel at the huevos it took for a room full of highly paid people in expensive suits to gather around a table and come to a decision like that one.

" can we minimize the risk of a BCS team wetting the bed on national TV against riff-raff like TCU and Boise State? And make it impossible for those same teams to earn any national respect? And preserve our cushy fake jobs? WAIT! Let's make them play each other! Goddamn we're smart! Someone give me a raise and fetch me another puppy to kick."

But enough of all of that. Nevada finally has a bowl destination and another opponent to train its sights on. Now the question is: how much do you know about the SMU Mustangs? Let's swipe the Wayback Machine from Mr. Peabody and see...

From the end of World War I to the Clinton administration -- 78 years, to be exact -- the Mustangs were a member of the old Southwest Conference. The now-defunct conference boasted a membership that (at one time or another) included Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Baylor, Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech and Houston before it was dissolved in 1996. Its former members eventually landed in the Big Eight (now the Big 12), the SEC, the WAC, the Mountain West and Conference USA.

During their time in the Southwest Conference, the Mustangs won three national championships and ten conference titles while appearing in eleven bowl games. Their players frequently received All-American recognition, and to this day the school's lone Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker (pictured below) is the namesake of the award given annually to the nation's best running back.

By the 1980s, SMU was experiencing its golden years. But its boosters and supporters often found themselves breaking numerous NCAA rules in order to ensure the program could keep pace with rival programs two or three times larger than theirs. In the span of a decade from the 70s into the 80s, it was placed on probation five times. A "slush fund" of booster money was used to pay prospective and current players. The NCAA meted out bans on bowl games and TV appearances, too.

But in 1987 the NCAA felt it had no choice left but to bring the hammer down. The Mustangs' entire 1987 season was cancelled, as was half of the 1988 season. The program lost a total of 55 scholarships over the next four years, and was prohibited from appearing in bowl games for two years.

Needless to say, the impact was devastating. Even after the punishments were served, the program never again reached the dizzying heights it was accustomed to. Since the infamous "death penalty" was dealt and football officially came back in 1989, the Mustangs have gone 66-169-3, with only two winning seasons in that span and no bowl games. Until this year.

Knowing all of this, I'm amazed their return to postseason play isn't getting more national attention. Phrases like "life after death" and "rising from the ashes" sound cliched and melodramatic, but considering what this program has been through the last twenty years, they actually fit in this case.

In a future entry, Pistol Whipping the WAC will take a look at what the Pack can expect from this Mustang team in Honolulu.