DALLAS – When playing a June Jones-coached football team, a majority of the pregame hype usually centers round his much-imitated run-and-shoot offense.
Rightfully so. While at Hawaii, Jones’ teams were in the top five nationally in total offense each of his eight years.
But his Southern Methodist University team that hosts Washington State on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PDT, CBS College Sports) may be stronger on the other side of the ball.
The Mustangs’ defense is coming off a 28-7 stifling of UAB. The Blazers could muster only 108 yards on the ground and another 153 through the air. They did not threaten in the final 31/2 quarters.
Even SMU’s 35-27 loss at Texas Tech to open the season wasn’t completely a defensive meltdown. Though the Red Raiders rolled up 359 passing yards, a big part of their offense came following four SMU turnovers.
Which means coach Paul Wulff’s Cougars (1-1) face a tough task in the Texas heat and humidity (the forecast calls for a high of 97 with a 10 percent chance of showers).
“Their speed,” Wulff answered when asked the Mustangs’ defensive strength. “They run very well. All their linebackers can run extremely well and their secondary is fast as well.”
Though the Mustangs are young overall – only four seniors start combined on both sides of the ball – the secondary features three upperclassmen and sophomore strong safety Ryan Smith, the leading tackler of the group and the only one with an interception.
But it’s the front seven that worries Wulff. SMU features a 3-4 front, something new this year for the Cougars. And it isn’t a static set.
“They give you a lot of different looks because they’re a three-man front,” Wulff said. “They really move those linebackers around, they’ll slide their front. You don’t get a lot of consistent looks.”
That puts the onus on Zack Williams, the first-year starting center, and the rest of the offensive line to make the correct reads. And that’s not easy.
Last year, SMU held to 276 yards of total offense, only 37 coming on the ground. James Montgomery, coming off his first 100-yard game at WSU, was held to 15 yards and suffered a season-ending lower-leg injury.
Today, Montgomery is coming off a 116-yard game against Montana State and is looking to carry the ball more than the six times he did last season.
“From a run-blocking perspective, sometimes they can really catch you off-guard a little bit,” Wulff said. “That creates problems.”
It’s the passing game that got the Cougars going in last week’s 23-22 win over the Bobcats, with sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel completing 10 of his last 11 throws as WSU scored on three consecutive possessions.
Protecting Tuel won’t be simple today, however.
“(Identifying) whose coming and whose not, because they don’t always give you the same look, to I.D. who you have in protection, that’s an issue,” Wulff said.
Weakside linebacker Ja’Gared Davis paces the Mustangs with 21/2 sacks already this season, while inside linebacker Pete Fleps leads with 22 tackles.