SMU faces daunting challenge vs. No. 11 Houston
SMU coach Chad Morris is still looking for a signature win to jump-start the Mustangs' program. An upset of No. 11 Houston would certainly qualify.
SMU hosts the Cougars on Saturday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas. The Mustangs have lost three in a row, including an emotionally-draining 43-40 overtime defeat to Tulsa two weeks ago.
"It was as hurt as I've seen the locker room (after the Tulsa loss) since I've been here in 18 games," Morris said during his Monday press conference. "I firmly believe this program is exceptionally close, extremely close. We just need a break."
SMU (2-4, 0-2 AAC) had a bye week to get over the loss, but there's still plenty to fix if the Mustangs are to knock off the talented Cougars. Tulsa rushed for 315 yards against the Mustangs, who are 91st against the run, surrendering 195 yards on the ground per game. They are last in the AAC in total defense.
"It demoralizes you," Morris said of the inability to stop the run.
Houston (6-1, 3-1 AAC) will test the Mustangs' shortcomings on defense. The Cougars are averaging 200.0 yards on the ground and could get top running back Duke Catalon back.
Catalon missed the last four games with a concussion, but was cleared to return to practice this week and could play Saturday.
Houston coach Tom Herman told the Houston Chronicle this week that if Catalon shows signs of another concussion while at the school, "they are going to shut him down."
With Catalon out, even more of the offensive load has been put on the shoulders of quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who has already carried the football 100 times for 414 yards and six touchdowns in seven games. Ward also has completed 70.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns.
"He's our best player," Herman said of Ward. "When the game is on the line, I want the ball in the hands of our best player. We're continuing to find ways to run the football without him having to read people or be the designed character. But if we need to win the game, we'll use him."
Behind the 396 yards of offense from Ward, Houston was able to bounce back from its upset loss to Navy two weeks ago with a hard-fought win over Tulsa last week.
The loss to Navy likely derailed the Cougars' hopes of crashing the four-team playoff, but Houston is still in line for a New Year's bowl. A showcase game against No. 7 Louisville on Nov. 17 is sandwiched between the Cougars' remaining four AAC games.
Herman says he isn't having any trouble keeping his team motivated.
"The motivation is easy because every week there is something about how we are overrated or not good enough," Herman told reporters this week. "We were the underdogs, we were this and we were that. The chip on our shoulder never had to be manufactured. It was there organically from last year, which creates a toughness and edge about you.
"This year our team is tough and physical, but our team is learning how to be the hunter, not the hunted. We are learning to be the overdog instead of the underdog."
The Cougars are heavy "overdogs" this week against an SMU team that has lost eight players for the season to injury, including senior starting quarterback Matt Davis to an ACL injury in the first game of the season.
"We're as healthy as we can be," Morris said.
Freshman quarterback Ben Hicks has completed 51.9 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and nine interceptions since taking over for Davis.
Hicks starts behind one of the youngest offensive lines in the nation and keeping him upright will be a priority against the Cougars, who have 19 sacks on the season.
"I expect it to be physical and the only thing we can control is how we respond," Morris said.
Houston has won 10 of the last 11 games against SMU, including last season's 49-28 victory. Ward picked apart the Mustangs in the win, completing 16 of 18 passes for 243 yards with a rushing and passing touchdown.
"No one has stopped him yet," Morris said of Ward.