Missed red zone chances, poor second half costs SMU in loss to UCF in AAC opener

Photo by Dave Campbell's Texas Football

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Rhett Lashlee’s ghosts of coaching past aren’t treating the first-year SMU head coach with kindness.

The Mustangs are now 0-2 against Lashlee’s old bosses following a 41-19 loss to UCF on Wednesday night in a Week 5 AAC clash that was postponed due to Hurricane Ian. The flashbacks started in Week 4 when Sonny Dykes returned to Dallas to reclaim the Iron Skillet. Gus Malzahn, who coached Lashlee in high school and mentored him throughout the formative years on his early coaching career, led his Knights past SMU on Wednesday night. UCF outscored the Mustangs 31-0 to start the second half to overcome a three-point halftime deficit. SMU added a late rushing touchdown to avoid a shut out in the second half. 

SMU (2-3) is on a three-game losing streak and 0-1 in conference play. UCF (4-1) joins the Big 12 along with Houston and Cincinnati in 2023. 

THREE THINGS 

Red zone failures: SMU was solid in the red zone entering the game against UCF. The Mustangs scored 14 touchdowns in 20 trips into the area through four weeks, while only allowing seven touchdowns on 15 visits by opponents. The UCF defense was the best in the nation at preventing red zone touchdowns in that span. 

The Knights won the red zone battle, and ultimately the game, on Wednesday night. SMU only scored six points in its first three trips to the red zone. UCF scored 14 points in its first two trips to the red zone. Those field goals by SMU kept the Knights within striking distance entering the second half. SMU only scored one touchdown despite seven drives reaching UCF territory.

SMU moved the ball throughout the contest without the satisfaction of points. The Mustangs accumulated 24 first downs and 414 yards of total offense. Tanner Mordecai threw for 295 yards. The rushing attack accounted for 112 more. Rashee Rice continued his torrid receiving pace with 12 catches for 122 yards. But two turnovers and a lack of execution in the red zone cost Lashlee’s squad.

Off the tracks: Stats can be misleading. A quick look at the box score after the first half suggested that the Mustangs managed some consistent success on the ground in the loss to UCF. But most of that was due to a 39-yard touchdown run by Velton Gardner in SMU’s lone touchdown drive. SMU entered the game with a 55-45 run-pass ratio. The Mustangs called 23 more passes on Wednesday night, and that lack of balance was true before UCF built a double-digit lead. SMU only averaged 3.6 yards a carry on 31 attempts. Take away the 39-yard run in the first quarter and the Mustangs ran for 74 yards on 30 carries, which is 2.46 per carry. 

Sack or bust: The secondary concerns for SMU became apparent in the loss to TCU in Week 4. The Horned Frogs completed 22 of 29 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. The SMU defense did record five sacks, but if the pass rush wasn’t producing negative plays, the secondary was giving up big ones. The trend continued against a UCF offense that would rather run the ball. The Knights decided in the second half to abandon the normal game plan for a pass-happy attack to pick on the weakness of the Mustangs defense, and that allowed UCF to run away with the game. 

UCF completed 22 of 31 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. The Knights were only averaging 206.75 yards per game through the air in their first four contests. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee’s ability to scramble and buy time with his feet kept the Mustangs from racking up more than one sack. 

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