The snowball of bad that is the early part of the SMU season hits the road, out of the metroplex for the first time, and off to Ann Arbor for the Wolverines. 100,000 plus fans in maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh, and Don Brown. That last name is one you might not have heard of, but he’s essential to Michigan’s aspirations.
Brown is the Michigan defensive coordinator. He’s the former DC at Boston College and UConn. Before that, he was the head coach at UMass. In his two-plus seasons with the Wolverines, his units finished first and third in total defense among FBS teams.
The defense he oversees is aggressive, fast, and challenging. Last season the Wolverines played, according to Brown, 400 snaps of man to man. They dare you to beat them and not many opponents can. Part of the reason is that Brown defenses are among the most aggressive in college football, among the leaders in the nation in creating havoc or chaos plays. The 2017 Wolverines had a national leading 114 tackles for loss, including 42 sacks, they had ten interceptions, and 63 passes defended.
So far in 2018, the Wolverines are causing problems again, with fifteen tackles for loss, four sacks, and nine pass breakups in a pair of games, a loss at Notre Dame and a win over Western Michigan.
High risk, High Reward
The principles of Brown’s defensive approach is pretty simple; theoretically, Brown wants to create a culture where running to the football is second nature. Eleven defenders, mostly high school All-Americans, pursue the ball as though it’s the most critical thing in the world. Brown is famous for saying that loafing is treason. Once that culture is established, and he finds eleven guys who’ll play to the standard, his scheme takes over.
He puts a lot of trust in his coverage group, so much so that he’ll often play a single high safety so his other safety can play in the box. The defense is high risk, but it’s also high reward. The Wolverines are going to sell out to stop the run and leave their corners on islands. Brown is betting that his rush can get to you or throw off your timing before you can scorch his secondary.
For SMU, if they want to have offensive success, it’ll probably come from the quick game to give quarterback Ben Hicks simple reads, get the ball out of his hands, and hope that players like James Proche can make someone miss. Take what the Wolverines give you - if Hicks see space in coverage, throw his hitch, take three yards and hope to get more after the catch. SMU has to stay ahead of the down and distance. If they get into second and third and long, get ready because Brown is going to dial up the pressure.
After two games, Ben Hicks is struggling. He looks like early 2016 Ben Hicks, bad body language, Nuke Lalush throws, and turnover prone. Last week against TCU, as the Frogs adjusted after the first quarter and took away Hicks’ early progressions, he struggled in the pocket. He’s never had great pocket presence; his strength is getting the ball to an initial read or throwing vertically to a man beater.
When Courtland Sutton was running around, Hicks had a superior athlete to win 50/50 balls. Trey Quinn was the poster child for the reliable slot receiver. Hicks is looking for those roles in this year’s skill group. If Hicks is going to help the Mustangs as the season carries on, he has to build up his confidence by making easier, quicker throws and playing at a high tempo.
A run game will help too.
Don’t Forget the Run
For the Mustangs, Braeden West, Ke’Mon Freeman, and Xavier Jones give the rush attack talented options, but through two games, SMU has yet to average more than four yards a carry. In the opener, SMU lost the plot quickly, abandoned the run, and ended up with just four rushing yards. Total.
Against TCU, the Mustangs ran for 89 first quarter yards, including a 51 yard West touchdown. After the opening fifteen minutes, the Mustangs reliance on the run diminished, the weight fell to Hicks who started taking sacks, turning the ball over and SMU generally poured gasoline on the fire. Not unlike the week before in Denton.
SMU isn’t getting to a second straight bowl without some balance, not a 50/50 split of play calling, but the ability run the football when needed. More importantly the patience to wherewith-all to commit to the ground game.
The task against Michigan’s defense isn’t any easier. SMU will be tested in ways unique even in their 2108 rough road so far. The outcome of the game isn’t as important as the steps SMU’s offense can take to get on track.