I’ll admit that after seeing the football team defeat North Texas and compete with TCU over the previous two weeks, I began to believe that the SMU Mustangs were turning the corner from mediocrity… unfortunately in the process of making the turnaround the team stalled out with a 48-45 loss to the James Madison Dukes on Saturday.
The same issues that plagued the team all throughout the 2014 season — ill-timed turnovers on offense and allowing big plays on defense — reared its ugly head as the team appeared to regress from what new head coach Chad Morris has been trying to instill in his short time in Dallas.
Despite being down only three points, 17-14, at halftime it just seemed as if SMU was lethargic and disinterested in the match-up with the competitive FCS program and maybe expected the lower-division team to come into Gerald J. Ford Stadium and lay down… but they didn’t. Vad Lee, a transfer from Georgia Tech, showed why he was previously the starting quarterback for a Power-5 Conference team — he can ball.
Lee finished the game with 575 total yards, including 276 rushing yards and 5 total touchdowns, but it was his arm that won the game for the Dukes — the last three JMU touchdowns came through the air, including a 17 yard pass to John Miller with 27 seconds remaining to take the lead for good.
“Go big or go home”, and it seems as if opposing teams offenses choose to go grand canyon big when scoring on SMU defense. Of the 21 touchdowns surrendered in the three losses in 2015, 15 have come on plays greater than 15-yards also known as chunk plays. Against James Madison, the Dukes had four of them including a 40 yard run by Lee where it seemed as if no one on SMU defense wanted to touch him.
It may be time to change some things on that side of the ball for defensive coordinator Van Malone because the lack of pass rush, poor coverage techniques, terrible tackling is hurting the team. Many of JMU scores came on plays where Lee had a lot of time to scan the field — he was not sacked on the day — and have his choice of wide open receivers, who then caught the ball and then ran into the endzone unscathed.
Even with the struggles defensively, the offense continues to make huge strides. Quarterback Matt Davis had a solid day throwing for 262 yards but his indecision on where to throw the ball to led to five sacks. A talented runner (95 yards on 17 carries), Davis is still trying to find a balance of when to run and when to go through route progressions in the pocket.
One player he doesn’t hesitate throwing the ball to is receiver Cortland Sutton. Despite being Davis’ favorite target — 17 receptions on the year — opposing defensive backs still have trouble slowing down the 6’4 target. Against JMU Sutton made the most of his five catches as he finished with 167 yards.
The loss has to be frustrating for a fan base hoping to build momentum after being competitive against Top 25 programs, but the season isn’t over… it’s actually just beginning this weekend when they open conference play against ECU. Losses like these are just part of the ups and downs that come from trying to restore a winning mindset in a program that fell off hard in 2014. So don’t get discouraged Mustang fans, just know that Coach Morris is putting the team back on track to being consistently competitive — it just will take some time.