The East Carolina University (3-6, 0-5 AAC) football team will attempt to win multiple road games in a season for the first time since 2015 when it travels to Dallas, Texas to face Southern Methodist University (8-1, 4-1 AAC) on Saturday.
Not long removed from being on the wrong end of a walk-off field goal that allowed the University of Cincinnati (7-1, 4-0 AAC) to leave Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a 46-43 edge, the Pirates will look to rebound against their second ranked opponent in as many weeks.
“The disappointing thing is not being able to secure that one, first really special win for our young program and we had that opportunity,” head coach Mike Houston said. “But you take all those experiences and you learn from them and you keep your focus on what’s right in front of you and that is continuing to push forward. Another great opportunity this week with another ranked opponent on the road in Dallas at SMU.”
While the Pirates got a good team at home in Cincinnati, the Mustangs have consistently been one of the best offensive teams in the country this season. Following a 54-48 loss at the hands of the University of Memphis (8-1, 4-1 AAC), SMU will enter Saturday’s matchup with the seventh best scoring offense in the FBS (43.6 points per game).
Much of points have come from the right arm of junior quarterback Shane Buechele. A graduate transfer from the University of Texas (5-3, 3-2 Big 12), Buechele has thrown 23 touchdowns through nine games this season, while maintaining a completion percentage north of 63%. His 2,781 passing yards average out to 309 per game, ranking him eighth individually in the nation.
“The thing with SMU is they can do it all,” Houston said. “They’re very explosive offensively. The quarterback (Buechele), was the starter at Texas at one point in his career. Very talented passer, above average rusher. Obviously, everything kind of centers around him.”
Work week #10: SMU pic.twitter.com/LorzcZ3syJ— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) November 4, 2019
Indeed SMU’s offense flows through Buechele, just like ECU’s runs through sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers. It helps, however, that the Mustangs possess one of the best wide receiver corps in the nation.
Likely to be without their No. 2 receiver by yards in junior Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU still has plenty in the stable for Buechele to work with. At the top of their statistics sheet in the receiving category is senior wide receiver James Proche who has hauled in a team-best 74 passes for 841 yards and 10 touchdowns.
After racking up over 100 all-purpose yards in SMU’s loss to Memphis, Proche now has 21 such games in his collegiate career, including 12 games with at least 100 receiving yards. With 34 receiving touchdowns at SMU, Proche is tied with Emmanuel Sanders for the most in program history while his 3,565 yards and 264 receptions rank second.
“It’s a very explosive offense,” Houston said. “They are going to play an up-tempo style. Maybe not quite as fast as UCF, but still, they are going to play an up-tempo game. They do everything. They’re going to formation us all over the place. They’re going to run every trick play in the book. We’re going to have to do a really good job of being disciplined and being dialed in to our responsibilities and being aggressive.”
Proche has helped SMU amass the 11th-best passing offense in the FBS, accounting for nearly 30% of the Mustangs’ receiving yards. In the place of Roberson, freshman wide receiver Rashee Rice racked up over 100 yards against Memphis, giving him 226 on the season and placing him fourth on the roster in that category.
With that passing attack, which also includes junior tight end Kylen Granson (432 receiving yards) and senior wide receiver Myron Gailliard (176 receiving yards), SMU ranks eighth in the nation by averaging nearly 510 yards per game in 2019.
On the rushing side of the football, the Mustangs have a running back nearing 1,000 yards on the year. As a team, SMU has posted the 42nd-best rushing offense in the FBS (191 yards per game) with senior Xavier Jones leading the way with 906 yards.
Over the past two games, rush defense has limited the Pirates’ success as they allowed over 300 yards on the ground in each contest. Overall, ECU ranks 108th out of 130 FBS teams in rush defense this season, allowing an average of 204.3 per game.
“It’s something we’ve got to improve on, there’s no doubt,” Houston said. “We look every week at why things happen, and you’ve got to do a great job fundamentally. You’ve got to do a great job schematically. We’ve got to continue to do a great job with development. Obviously, here in year one you’re trying to lay those foundational things and the players understand the importance right there.”
In his second season at SMU, Mustangs head coach Sonny Dykes seems to have laid that foundation with his program. While possessing one of the best offensive units in the nation, SMU also owns a defensive group that can rival the best in the FBS.
Led by senior linebacker Patrick Nelson and senior defensive end Delontae Scott, the Mustangs pace the nation by averaging 4.44 sacks per contest. Paired with at least 385 yards of total offense every game, SMU has racked up at least one sack in each contest and 40 total on the season.
Between them, Nelson and Scott have 16.5 sacks and 25 total tackles for loss. Averaging 1.06 sacks per game, Nelson ranks eighth in the nation individually while the Mustangs’ defense has forced 17 turnovers through nine games, the 15th-best mark in the FBS.
“They (SMU) have tremendous depth in their defensive front,” Houston said. “They’re very diverse on the backend with their coverages and do a lot of things back there. They’re going to take chances. They’re going to be very aggressive. They’re going to make some big plays. Hopefully we can capitalize and maybe make some big plays of our own. I think they’re a solid football team. There’s a reason they were 7-0.”
Big plays are something ECU’s offense had little problem with last week against Cincinnati as Ahlers racked up 535 passing yards, becoming the first Pirate quarterback to reach the 500-yard mark in school history.
On the receiving side, freshman wide receiving C.J. Johnson a conference- and school-record with 283 yards on 12 catches, giving him 682 yards on the season. As a team, ECU’s 638 total yards last Saturday ranked as the eighth most in school history.
Going against a Mustang defense that ranks third in the nation with 8.8 tackles for loss per game and loves to get after the quarterback, however, is a Pirate offensive line that has been battling injuries. While Ahlers was not sacked against Cinicinnati, both junior right guard Sean Bailey and sophomore right tackle Matt Morgan missed the game with injuries.
While Morgan is listed behind redshirt freshman right tackle Noah Henderson on ECU’s depth chart for this week, Bailey is not found, leaving senior Branden Pena at right guard for the second straight game and keeping junior center John Spellacy at that position.
Nevertheless the flux on the offensive line, the Pirates posted their best offensive game of the season against the Bearcats, showcasing an ability to keep up with a nationally ranked opponent.
“They were loose, not uptight, but very focused and locked in,” Houston said about his team ahead of last Saturday’s game. “I think they felt confident in each other. It all goes back to your preparation. We’ve got to have a great week of practice. We have a huge challenge in front of us, so we’ve got to really focus on doing things right every day. That’s what it really comes down to. Do right.”
This week of preparation will be shorter in a sense due to the 11 a.m. local time kickoff in Dallas on Saturday. Still though, it’s something both teams must deal with and adjust to with their weeks of practice. Slated to be 22-point underdogs, it will be up to the offense to replicate its performance from last Saturday while the defense will look to rebound against the run against a really solid opponent.