By Andy Lohman, SMU
With five wins in its last seven games, SMU football is hitting its stride behind an offense that is operating on all cylinders.
The Mustangs set a program record for points in a road game with a 62-50 American Athletic Conference win at UConn on Saturday afternoon to improve to 5-5 overall and 4-2 in AAC play. SMU was ruthlessly efficient, scoring 62 points on just 69 plays at an average clip of 8.6 yards per play.
The 62-point outburst followed a 45-31 win over Houston on Nov. 3, the first time SMU has ever scored 45 points in back-to-back conference games. The health of the running game has fueled the surge in offense. Against the Huskies, SMU ran for 279 yards and six touchdowns, both season highs.
Junior back Ke’Mon Freeman was the first to find the end zone Saturday, breaking four tackles on his way to a 39-yard score. Freeman had 17 carries for 116 yards and a career-high three touchdowns, the second straight week he’s scored multiple touchdowns. After missing significant playing time due to injuries, Freeman broke out against Houston with 107 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns.
“Having all three of the backs back allows us to keep them fresh. What I like about the guys is they’re all different,” Head Coach Sonny Dykes said. “That’s a big deal to have them back healthy because I don’t think we’ve had all three healthy until last week and they’re certainly making a difference in our run game.”
Freeman’s bruising running style complements the speed of senior Braeden West and the downhill style of junior Xavier Jones. Jones found success running between the tackles on Saturday, totaling 133 yards on 11 carries and two long touchdowns. Early in the second half, linemen Beau Morris and Alan Ali opened up a hole on the left side for Jones to dart through for a 52-yard score. Later, one play after SMU recovered UConn’s onside kick attempt, Jones sprinted 43 yards to the end zone.
Injuries have forced SMU to shuffle the offensive line around almost every week. Morris and Ali started for the second straight week alongside Hayden Howerton, Larry Hughes and Jaylon Thomas.
“I think they’re starting to grow up and starting to figure it out and play the way we want them to play,” Dykes said. “Overall I think the offensive line is improving and playing better. We’ve had a bunch of moving parts, but they’re starting to settle in and play with some confidence.”
Freeman and Jones made up SMU’s first pair of 100-yard rushers since a win over East Carolina on Nov. 12, 2016 and the Mustangs’ six rushing touchdowns were the most since the 49-21 win over Tulane on Nov. 21, 2015.
A healthy running game gives the offense balance, which allows SMU to be creative in the passing game. In the second quarter, sophomore receiver Tyler Page took a hand-off and rolled out left before lobbing a three-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Ryan Becker. On the next SMU drive, West tossed the ball back to junior quarterback Ben Hicks on a flea-flicker, then Hicks launched a 46-yard pass to junior receiver James Proche, who reeled in the catch with one hand. West punched in a six-yard touchdown to finish the drive.
After starting the season 0-3, the offensive resurgence has guided the Mustangs to a 5-2 record in the past seven games and a punchers’ chance at the AAC West division title. After averaging 272.3 yards per game in the first three contests, SMU is averaging 440.4 in its last seven. The Mustangs are also scoring an average of 20 more points per game.
Now SMU turns its attention to the final two games of the regular season, at home on Friday, Nov. 16 against Memphis (8 p.m. on ESPN2) and on the road against Tulsa on Nov. 24. One more win secures bowl eligibility. Houston currently leads the AAC West, but SMU is just one game behind and holds the tiebreaker over the Cougars. With the offense clicking, the Mustangs could turn some heads as the season winds down.