SMU Mustangs take on Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
By Matthew Postins
The last time SMU hosted Stephen F. Austin the Mustangs weren’t a wounded team coming off a crushing loss to a former Southwest Conference rival. They were a team no one expected anything of that went on to claim a share of the Conference USA’s West Division crown.
That 2009 season was historic for the Mustangs. But it almost started with an embarrassing loss to the Lumberjacks, who play in the FCS’s Southland Conference.
SMU won the game, 31-23, and struggled mightily to do so. In fact, the difference in the game was SFA’s inability to minimize turnovers, as the Lumberjacks offense – led by future Walter Payton award-winning quarterback Jeremy Moses – committed six turnovers. Moses threw five interceptions.
Three years later SFA returns to Ford Stadium in much the same condition it was in when it last came to Dallas. The Lumberjacks (1-0) are a Top 25 team in FCS armed with a high-flying offense and a deceptively good defense that Mustangs head coach June Jones can appreciate.
“Their defensive is a lot like Baylor and their offense is a lot like ours,” Jones said.
But that appreciation ends at 7 p.m. when the Mustangs and Lumberjacks take the field.
Jones must find out what ailed his defense against Baylor last week. Anyone who expected a falloff for the Bears from the departure of quarterback Robert Griffin III was disappointed. Baylor snagged a 24-3 halftime lead, en route to a 59-24 win on national television.
Most disheartening to Jones was that Baylor racked up 613 total yards against a Mustang defense that some believed might be the best in Conference USA. Nick Florence, Griffin’s replacement, picked apart the Mustang secondary.
The Lumberjacks love to throw the ball. SFA averaged nearly 50 pass attempts per game last year, and triggerman Brady Attaway has matured and improved since inheriting the starting job from Moses. Attaway threw for 3,051 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, and is coming off a 354-yard, 3 touchdown performance against Southwestern Oklahoma.
“Their concepts are similar to what we do,” Jones said. “They run out of a pistol instead of a shotgun, which changes a couple of things. But they have four wide receivers that are great. Their quarterback is accurate. He’s better than (Moses).”
Jones expects his defense to bounce back. He has fewer concerns about his offense, even though it was nearly shut out in the first half last week.
New quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns last week, which was actually the second-best performance of his college career. He threw two interceptions as well, but that’s the price of doing business when you throw 59 times.
“Garrett did a lot of good things. I was happy with him,” Jones said. “To throw it nearly 60 times he did well. He got pressure and knew where to go. His third down conversions were 12 of 20 because he didn’t take sacks. He kept giving himself a chance to convert. I was pleased. He hadn’t played in a year.”
The Mustangs were balanced against Baylor. Running back Zach Line rushed for 135 yards on 25 carries. Gilbert spread his passes out among eight different receivers, with Darius Johnson and Jeremy Johnson leading the team with nine receptions each.
The balance is key against a SFA defense that has potential to be one of the best in the Southland. It’s led by defensive lineman Willie Jefferson, who had 15 sacks last season – including five in one game – and was on practically every FCS preseason All-American and award watch list.
“We have to make big plays,” Jones said. “If you make more explosive plays than your opponent and win the takeaways, you’re going to win most ballgames. How we’ve done that in the past seven, eight years is with offense. Baylor made more 10-yard runs and more 10-yard pass plays than us. We had 92 plays but per attempt that yardage has to go up.”