A well-rested SMU squad takes on the nation’s No. 11 team when the Mustangs welcome Houston at 6 p.m. Oct. 22 on ESPN2.
The Mustangs (2-4, 0-2) enjoyed a bye, while the Cougars (6-1, 3-1) beat Tulsa 38-31.
Houston leads the American Conference in scoring defense, but coach Tom Herman said the Cougars will have to rely on reserves since several players won’t be playing Oct. 22.
Linebacker D’Juan Hines will play for Matthew Adams, and defensive linemen B.J. Singleton and Nick Thurman will play a lot of minutes, Herman added. Offensive lineman Mac Long will be asked to fill in for Jerard Carter.
“We have five starting defensive tackles that just happen to rotate in three spots,” he said. “So Nick has to pick up some load. Jerard can’t play as many snaps.”
SMU relies on running back Braeden West, who has 97 carries for 521 yards and three touchdowns, good enough for fourth in the conference. Quarterback Ben Hicks has completed 111 passes for 1,284 yards, six touchdowns. and nine interceptions, which ranks seventh in the league. Receiver Courtland Sutton has 30 catches for 590 yards and four touchdowns.
“Their speed, size and strength have changed for the better,” Herman said. “They lost their quarterback, which hurt them a little bit from a dual threat standpoint, but Ben Hicks is playing well. He’s throwing the ball and managing the game. He’s definitely not the home-run threat running the football that Matt Davis was, but he’s very capable and doing a good job as a freshman.”
SMU ranks second nationally in interceptions led by Jordan Wyatt and Horace Richardson, who both have two apiece. They lead the conference. Darrion Millines has three and is fourth in the league.
“You’re seeing a team that has played much better defense than a year ago,” Herman said. “They’re getting way more turnovers than they were before.”
But the Cougars rank very high on offense and defense, too. They are second in the league in scoring offense at 43 points per game and lead the conference in scoring defense with 19 points per contest. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leads the league in passing yards with 323 per contest and is seventh in rushing with 69 per game.
Running back Dillion Birden was named to the conference’s honor roll.
Herman said this team is learning how to play as the hunted instead of the hunters.
“The motivation is easy because every week there is something about how we are overrated or not good enough,” he said. “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.”