Was it a sign or just a coincidence that SMU head coach Phil Bennett was acting loose and cool at his press luncheon earlier this week?
Strapped with a 1-3 start and facing the Conference USA opener in five days, there was Bennett Tuesday giving open and thorough answers to questions, and even throwing some jokes and smiles into the weekly meeting.
The fresh start of conference play seems to have enlivened Bennett, who still maintains the Mustangs can win the title despite numbers that, on paper, would suggest differently.
"The biggest goal we have right now is to be 1-0 in conference play," Bennett said. "We'll take it every week from there. My hope is that the challenge of all the injuries we've had, and getting players into the right positions is over, and that we can move forward now.
"We're very capable of competing and winning this conference, without question. I totally believe that."
SMU (1-3) must win five games to be bowl eligible, and would have to post a 6-2 record in C-USA play to all but guarantee a bowl berth somewhere.
Bennett said he was "an emotional wreck" following last Saturday's loss to TCU. SMU out-gained TCU and played better defense for most of the game, but three fourth-down failures in TCU territory, a dropped touchdown pass, and two turnovers for touchdowns spelled defeat.
"I'm not sure in 30 years that I've had a team that's dominated so many phases, only to lose," Bennett said. "Obviously, you can't give away points. But it was the best focus we've had all season."
The type of focus he hopes can carry SMU into Saturday's conference opener against UTEP. Some players mentioned that last week's practices were poor (one player called them "dismal"), but yet the Mustangs turned in their best start to a game this season and kept up their intensity and all-out play. What of this week?
Bennett says the Mustangs are finding a rhythm finally, with most of their pieces all on the same field at the same time and at full strength. The TCU game was the culmination of all the progress from SMU's "awkward" start to the season, he said.
"We've been off-kilter since the first week. Now it's time to make an impression and put a game together," Bennett said.
SMU's rushing attack has an opportunity for a break-out game Saturday after seeing a glimpse of its potential against TCU. The Mustangs rushed for 149 yards, including a 100-yard night for DeMyron Martin. SMU rushed 47 times, easily its season high - the previous high was 32 against North Texas.
UTEP leads C-USA in rushing defense (119.5 yards per game) but is missing three defensive linemen due to injury and five starters overall. Martin isn't expected to play Saturday after injuring a hamstring in Wednesday's practice. But Cedric Dorsey is expected to return to help the rushing workload with James Mapps, who had only seven yards on seven carries against TCU.
To date quarterback Justin Willis has done most of the running, so much so that Bennett admitted that the receivers are sometimes confused whether to scramble to get open or cut back upfield to block for the Willis. Quarterbacks in the spread offense aren't designed to be an offense's leading rusher, yet after four games Willis' 238 rushing yards is far ahead of Martin's 194. SMU averages 3.9 yards per rush, barely below the 4-yard benchmark Bennett identified as the goal for the season.
Perhaps the return of so many injured players, especially on defense, can lend some extra stability to the team. Turnovers like the ones at TCU, or penalties in key situations, or blown assignments are mistakes the Mustangs can ill afford at this point. Willis has already matched his interception total from the 2006 season (6), and SMU has lost four of the six fumbles it's put on the turf.
The turnovers, Bennett maintains, comes from a lack of focus, something SMU has - uh, focused - on this week.
"There's so much parity in this league," Bennett said. "If you maintain a focus every week, and stay healthy, you can make a run at this."
Watch out for that post-game handshake
Bennett joked about the issue UTEP coach Mike Price raised last year concerning SMU's use of a media guide cover photo that had Justin Rogers standing over a tackled UTEP player.
"I think Price wanted to beat up (SMU media relations director) Brad Sutton.," Bennett said. "I wanted to propose a pre-game boxing match at midfield Price and Sutton. "If Brad couldn't whip him, I know I can."
Morstead still kickin' it
Punter/kicker Thomas Morstead, who is on the Ray Guy Award Watch List, had a sub-par game at TCU with a 36-yard punting average that included a block. But the junior still ranks second in C-USA and 11th nationally with a 45.43-yard average. He's also perfect on his last 45 point-after kicks.
An even split in a budding rivalry
Since becoming conference mates in the Western Athletic Conference, SMU and UTEP have split the last 10 games between them. SMU holds a 3-1 advantage in Dallas during that time and is 2-1 at Ford Stadium. UTEP has won three of the last four meetings, however, including a 24-21 win last year in El Paso.
SMU's newest players on the defensive front made an impact last week at TCU. Defensive tackle Ryan Leonard recorded his first career sack last week at TCU, and Leonard and nose tackle Serge Elizee each recorded their first career fumble recoveries . . . Linebacker Will Bonilla and cornerback Brandon Jones each had their first career forced fumble against TCU . . . Martin's 100-yard game was the sixth of his career and second against TCU. The junior is now 20th on SMU's career rushing list with 1,417 yards, having moved past Gary Hammond (1,366 from 1969-70) with his 100-yard game last week . . . Emmanuel Sanders had the fifth 100-plus all-purpose yardage game (98 receiving yards plus 32 punt return yards) . . . Willis now has 267 career completions and is now seventh on SMU's all-time list.
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