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.

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