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USF vs. SMU Preview: Can The Bulls Keep Up With The "Run And Raid"?

SMU's offense is prolific, but their defense can be porous. USF has a team that's designed to give the Mustangs problems, in theory. Can the Bulls execute well enough to win?

Garrett Gilbert, back to throw. You'll see this a lot.
Garrett Gilbert, back to throw. You'll see this a lot.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most interesting offseason stories in college football was the addition of Hal Mumme to June Jones's coaching staff at SMU. How would Mumme, the father of the Air Raid, manage to coexist with Jones, a longtime run-and-shoot coach? Despite both systems being very pass-heavy, they don't easily mix together. The Air Raid is short passes, clean reads, and controlling the ball with the pass. The run and shoot drops the quarterback deeper, and it relies on longer throws and receivers making more route decisions on the fly.

#MummeUp was either going to be a beautiful marriage, or a spectacular flaming wreck. Whichever one it was, though, it was going to be a lot of fun to watch. And that's why I ended up going in with one of my friends on SMU season tickets.

Early on, the spectacular flaming wreck was looking pretty likely. The Mustangs hung tough against Texas Tech until they faded in the fourth quarter. They escaped FCS powerhouse Montana State with a last-minute touchdown, but looked lethargic against Texas A&M and TCU. It seemed like there was a tug of war going on between Mumme and Jones's systems, and there was very little rhythm to the SMU offense. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert looked a lot like the hesitant, mediocre passer he had been at Texas before transferring to SMU two years ago. Things just weren't working out.

When American play started against Rutgers*, it went from bad to worse. Their defense, which has been terrible all year, put SMU in a 35-14 hole with only one quarter left. At this unlikely point, though, SMU's offense finally clicked into place. They drove for three touchdowns, including a two-minute drill after Rutgers had tried and failed to put the game away on a 4th and 2. The final score cut Rutgers' lead to 35-33. And then this happened**:

SMU ended up losing 55-52 in triple overtime, but the balance had finally been struck and the "Run and Raid" was up and running. From then on, the Mustangs have been difficult to stop. They beat Memphis 34-29 after piling up a 34-3 lead in the third quarter. (Memphis needed two fluke touchdowns to get back in the game.) The next week, SMU rallied back from another 21-point deficit to outgun Temple 59-49 in a game where the Mustangs put up 728 yards of offense***. Gilbert alone accounted for 635 of them, including 538 passing yards. After dropping a 28-25 decision to Cincinnati, SMU rebounded last week to beat UConn 38-21.

Gilbert has been nearly flawless in conference play, throwing for 2099 yards, 17 touchdowns, and only one interception, with a 68% completion percentage. He has three top-notch targets to throw to - Jeremy Johnson already has 87 catches on the season, Darius Joseph is right behind with 79, and Keenan Holman is the deep threat when defenses start pressing in on the shallow crosses, stick routes, and bubble screens. Der'rikk Thompson has two 100-yard games as the fourth receiver, and Deion Sanders Jr. makes cameos on offense when he's not running back kicks. After losing running back Traylon Shead for the year against Temple, the running game has been a committee of K.C. Nlemchi, Prescott Line (brother of Zach), and Gilbert himself.

The Mustangs rank 20th overall in yards per game, 5th in passing yards per game, and 5th in passing attempts. They're throwing the ball early and often, but not that much downfield - they're only 72nd in yards per attempt. Both Johnson and Joseph are in the top 10 nationally in receptions. The passing stats are gaudy, and part of that is to be expected because of the offense they run. However, I've paid particular attention to how quickly they run plays, and their pace is somewhat slower than you would expect out of an Air Raid team. They don't huddle, but they're also not snapping the ball with 30 seconds on the play clock like you'll see Texas Tech, Baylor, or Oregon do when they get their tempo cranked up. As a result, the Mustangs' yards per play (5.7 on the season, 7.2 in the last three games) are a bit higher than your normal Air Raid team.

SMU's defense isn't much worth writing about, because they make very few plays. Their pass rush is decent, with 23 sacks, but they've forced only eight turnovers, they're poor against the run, and they often struggle to contain even middling offenses. This is where USF's best chance of winning lies.

You can't hope to stop the SMU offense. If you hold them to, say, 21 points and 400 yards, you've had a really good day. (The only team to do this to them all year was TCU, and they needed a massive rainstorm to help make it happen.) The way to beat the Mustangs, unless you can just overwhelm them with talent, is to tackle well and limit the damage when they have the ball, and also limit the amount of time they have the ball. You have to run effectively, keep the clock moving, and don't turn the ball over or throw a lot of incomplete passes.

So this game pretty much comes down to Marcus Shaw, Willie Davis, and Mike White. They have to play well to give the Bulls a chance to win. They need to keep the offense on schedule and get first downs. White has to be accurate and avoid mistakes that will give SMU the ball back. And the offense must score touchdowns when they get in position. It's a difficult test, but in theory USF is well set up to beat SMU. Can they execute well enough to make it happen?


* - This was the game where SMU held a tribute to their 1983 team, as if they had never been on Sherwood Blount's payroll. On the plus side, Craig James was already in the NFL by then, so they didn't have to invite him to the game.

** - The craziest play I've ever seen in person, by a wide margin. @furrer4heisman, who has the other half of the tickets, had to leave the game early. I've reminded him that he missed this play about 75 times.

*** - Of course, we left early to go see TCU play Texas and missed all the fun. Then the TCU game ended up being a complete dud, and there was a three-hour weather delay in the middle of it. Good job, good effort by us.