Why role reversal may be in store when Cougars, Mustangs meet again
Unlike the 1980 matchup between the two teams when SMU relied on the run and BYU the pass, this year’s matchup could be just the opposite.
It’s taken BYU and SMU over four decades to get back together in the postseason after delivering one of the wildest finishes in college football bowl history. Only in this year’s reunion in the New Mexico Bowl, the plans of attack could be completely different.
Back in mid-December in 1980, the No. 14 Cougars (11-1) entered the Holiday Bowl with Jim McMahon and a passing attack that had been unstoppable in 11 straight wins. The No. 19 Mustangs (8-3) rode into Jack Murphy Stadium on the legs of the famed Pony Express — the nickname given to their ground attack that featured a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
This was a classic contrast in styles, the pass against the run — and it exceeded all expectations.
McMahon and the Cougars threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns while being held to minus-2 yards rushing.
SMU ran the ball 66 times for 422 yards and four touchdowns. James had 23 carries for 225 yards and a pair of scores. Dickerson also ran 23 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Mustangs completed just six passes for 53 yards.
A wild rally by BYU, including a Hail Mary pass by McMahon to Clay Brown as time expired, erased a 20-point deficit in just over two minutes and gave the Cougars a stunning 46-45 win.
Appropriate that it was a pass that did SMU in.
The 2022 Mustangs (7-5) move down the field more like McMahon than their former Hall of Fame running backs. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai has thrown for 3,306 yards and 31 touchdowns. SMU has 10 receivers in its stable who average 10 yards or more per reception, including Rashee Rice who leads the way with 96 catches for 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns.
What these Mustangs don’t do is spend a lot of time running the ball. Tyler Lavine’s 551 rushing yards on the season is barely double what James picked up in the 1980 game by himself.
BYU quarterback Jaren Hall mirrors Mordecai with 3,171 passing yards and 31 touchdowns, but Hall’s health could turn the Cougars’ aerial assault into a ground attack. If the high ankle sprain that he suffered at Stanford two weeks ago keeps him out, the Cougars (7-5) will roll out redshirt freshman Cade Fennegan, who hasn’t taken a snap in a live game in over two years.
This is where running backs Chris Brooks and Hinckley Ropati can become the game changers for BYU. They are nowhere near the level of the “Pony Express” but each has found a way to deliver down the stretch.
Brooks, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound grad-transfer from Cal, has rushed for 266 yards in the last two games, including 164 at Stanford. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has adapted his play calling to suit Brooks’ “straight ahead” running style and it has paid off.
Ropati is a junior college transfer who was buried deep on the depth chart until injuries to Brooks, Lopini Katoa and Miles Davis gave him a chance to resurrect his career, and he has made the most of it.
With his 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame, Ropati averaged 9.4 yards on eight carries against Stanford and his speed and agility helped Roderick reintroduce the screen pass to BYU’s offense against Boise State with three receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Puka Nacua, the Cougars top receiver, is also a running threat. He averages 8.4 yards per carry on 25 runs for 209 yards and five touchdowns. He can take direct snaps out of the backfield or take off on a jet sweep around the corner.
All three Cougars, with help from a healthy offensive line, can bring great relief to a talented, but young quarterback. The SMU defense is susceptible to the run, allowing 203 yards a game and 4.9 yards per carry. Grinding on the ground can also keep SMU’s offense (38 points per game) on the sideline, which, under the circumstances, may be the Cougars’ best defense.
Either way, a shootout is still possible. A heavy dose of the Pony Express and McMahon in 1980 combined for 866 yards and 91 points. On Saturday, while the helmets will look similar, the Cougars and Mustangs may appear very different (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC).
Depending on Hall’s ankle, BYU’s best chance at grounding SMU’s passing attack may be with a ground attack in a role reversal nearly 42 years to the day of that iconic finish that introduced the world to McMahon’s golden arm and the Mizlou Television Network — two things BYU and SMU will never forget.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.
New Mexico Bowl on the air
vs. SMU (7-5)
Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM