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WOODWARD: Mustangs better at covering mistakes, weaknesses

E Carolina SMU Football
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SMU quarterback Shane Buechele fights for yards as East Carolina defensive end Kendall Futrell holds on for the tackle Saturday in Dallas. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, November 11, 2019

DALLAS

Tucked in a super clean and sometimes sleepy nook in Dallas is the campus at SMU, a private school that has stirred to life this fall behind a nationally ranked football team that provides excitement for its tidy, polite fan base with a fun-to-watch, prolific offense and an outside-the-box veteran in coach Sonny Dykes.

The Mustangs have one of the best offenses in the nation, which was needed Saturday to hold off East Carolina, 59-51, at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. ECU fell short in a second straight attempt at knocking off a ranked team for a signature victory for the Pirates and first-year coach Mike Houston.

When SMU scores, like it did versus ECU’s lacking defense with eight touchdowns in 13 possessions before expiring the clock in its final drive, a black pony sprints from one corner of the playing surface to the other end zone.

The scene is a spectacle to watch, kind of like the calming throws by quarterback Shane Buechele and spectacular catching ability by star receiver James Proche.

This year’s Mustang team has tired its loyal pony, and on Saturday it was clear the Mustangs had a much greater margin for error compared to the rebuilding, young Pirates.

SMU can score with any team in the country. It is very forgiving on defense, however, and doesn’t like to attempt field goals along with not using a traditional punter.

The Mustangs are good enough on offense to cover up those deficiencies. Dykes also is completely aware and comfortable with his team’s strengths and weaknesses.

SMU converted on all five of its fourth-down attempts.

ECU has looked like a similar team for most of November, losing 46-43 to No. 17 Cincinnati and then a defeat to the Mustangs despite scoring 51 points, but Houston and the Pirates (3-7, 0-6 American Athletic Conference) are still yearning to turn their results from confidence-building losses into meaningful wins.

East Carolina’s margin for error is tiny as an almost-always underdog in the American.

Quarterback Holton Ahlers was tremendous against Cincinnati, passing for a school-record 535 yards, but an interception turned into a pick-six proved costly during the final eight minutes.

Ahlers, a sophomore Greenville native, was great again Saturday. He passed for 498 yards and broke another school record with six touchdown passes — this time no interceptions — and freshman receiver Tyler Snead churned out 240 receiving yards in an inspiring, breakout performance by the 5-foot-7, 167-pound hustler and former walk-on.

But like Ahlers the week before, Snead was involved in a muffed kickoff return along with Jsi Hatfield, also a freshman, that the Mustangs recovered and then converted into their eighth TD for an insurmountable 59-44 lead with 4:18 remaining. The Pirate defense inexplicably allowing a 31-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-20 pass combined with the ensuing muffed kick was the most important sequence of the game.

SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati are providing their fan bases with excitement and championship-inspiring results in the AAC.

Houston and his staff are in an unfamiliar position, trying to build up the Pirates in the American compared to when they were easily leading the Colonial Athletic Association when coaching at high-scoring James Madison the last three seasons.

Thanks to Ahlers and young, emerging playmakers, ECU’s offense boasts budding confidence and is now plenty exciting. Increasing margin for error for the entire team is key for the Pirates to enjoy wins in their league.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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DALLAS

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E Carolina SMU Football

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