No one in Dallas expected a quick turnaround when Chad Morris was named head coach of the SMU Mustangs last December, but the journey back to respectability for the Mustangs has been a frustrating one.
Frustrating not because the team has been playing bad, but because they have shown glimpses of being good. There have been moments throughout the 2015-16 season that shows that this team will be good one day… unfortunately, it wasn’t Saturday as the team dropped a heartbreaker to the Temple Owls 60-40.
The final score may have been a 20 deficit, but the game was a lot closer as the Mustangs were within five points with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
After freshman Braeden West returned a punt 80 yards to cut the deficit to 45-40, it seemed as if the team was finally going to get over the hump but a 36-yard touchdown run by Temple quarterback PJ Walker and a 41-yard interception return by Sean Chandler shut the door on the comeback.
There are no moral victories when trying to rebuild a program, but the grit that the team showed after going down 14-0 to the No. 23 ranked team in the nation shows that Chad Morris and his staff is getting through to players that suffered through an unfortunate one-win 2014-15 season.
Even if the returning players were willing to completely buy into the new way of doing things, that didn’t guarantee a quick turnaround.
So far this season the biggest issue has been dealing with adversity. A crucial turnover or a stalled offense usually has signaled the end for a Mustang team that is still learning to overcome adversity.
The team took a huge step on Saturday as it never gave up and scored 17 consecutive points in the second quarter to take the 17-14 lead.
Another part of the problem is the fact that neither side of the ball is on the same page at the same time. If the defense is playing well, that usually means the offense is struggling or vice-versa.
That was true on Saturday because shortly after taking the lead, the defense surrendered 10 play 75-yard drive that saw the defense allow the Owls to convert a key third down when Walker connected with Robby Anderson for 25 yards. Temple would eventually re-take the lead on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Romond Deloatch right before the half.
“We gotta learn to finish the last three minutes of the first half and start the first three minutes of the second half,” said head coach Chad Morris. “That’s been our Achilles heel.”
When you acknowledge you have a problem, its a lot easier to fix it, and Coach Morris’ honesty about the team’s closing ability should pay huge dividends as time passes.
Even though the team did not close or start the half well it did do some good things on the night against one of the top defenses in the nation.
The Owls have faced multiple prolific offenses throughout the season, but none of those teams; not Notre Dame, Cincinnati, ECU or Penn State came close to the 40 points that SMU scored on the stingy Owl defense.
On the night quarterback, Matt Davis passed for 167 yards on 17-of-29 attempts and also rushed for 102 yards on 17 attempts. This was the third time that Davis had eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the season — but first since the victory over North Texas in Week 2. So while Coach Morris would rather see his signal caller remain in the pocket, Davis once again showed that the team could be better served using him as a true dual-threat option — if he can limit the turnovers.
One dual-threat option that Coach Morris seems to have added to the playbook permanently is giving the pass option to his backs and receivers. Running back Xavier Jones already has two touchdowns in his only two pass attempts and receiver Cortland Sutton wanted in on the fun as he completed a 45-yard pass to running back Braeden West.
“If you see him in practice, he thinks he’s Cam Newton,” said Davis about talent receiver turned quarterback. “We put that in at the beginning of the season, we practice it, and Cortland bugs us all the time trying to run it and he gets mad when Xavier gets to throw the ball and he doesn’t. But he got his number called and made a good pass and set us up for a score.”
For a team that is continually looking for guys to make plays, I don’t blame the staff for incorporating trick plays like this and fully expect to see more as the season progresses.
The quest for playmakers isn’t limited to the offensive side of the ball. The defense is lacking guys who can limit the opposing team’s best player(s) from going off. Stopping mobile quarterbacks have been an ongoing problem for the SMU defenseOn the year it seemed that if SMU was going up against a quarterback that had the ability to run, they struggled. And on Saturday it was the legs of the quarterback that ended up being the greatest undoing as Walker ran 36 yards for the score that eventually ended the game.
Three games remain in the season and it will be important to see if the team continues to fight. This upcoming Saturday the team heads to Maryland to face the Naval Acadamy and its vaunted triple-option run attack. The Mustangs will be faced with its biggest issue once again, a mobile quarterback, and it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Van Malone gameplans to stop the run-oriented offense.