NCF Nation: Taylor Thompson

BBVA Compass Bowl: Three Keys

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
2:30
PM ET
You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for Pitt and SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl:

Pitt

1. Focus. The same question has to be asked again this year heading into the BBVA Compass Bowl: What will be the motivation for the Panthers, who are playing in this game for the second straight season under an interim head coach? There is no doubt these players and this program were rocked hard by the way former coach Todd Graham left. They must put those negative emotions behind them and play for themselves and each other. This is a team that has been maddeningly inconsistent, which led to a disappointing season. Can they pull it together one final time to win their third straight bowl game?

2. Run. Pitt has experienced the most success this season when running the ball. That task got more difficult when Ray Graham was lost for the season. It will be even harder now that backup Zach Brown is questionable for the game with a bruised sternum. True freshman Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis will be relied upon to shoulder the load, so the game doesn't rest on the arm of quarterback Tino Sunseri.

3. Get after J.J. McDermott. Pitt has been terrific with its pass rush all season, tied for fourth nationally in sacks with an average of 3.25 per game. The Panthers have 39 total sacks on the season. The Mustangs have given up 27 sacks on the year, so there should be plenty of opportunity for Aaron Donald and Brandon Lindsey to get after McDermott. That obviously is a huge key if the Panthers want to disrupt their passing game -- the strength of the team.

SMU

1. Limit the mistakes. SMU ranks last in the nation in turnover margin (minus-17) and has at least one interception in 11 of its 12 games this season. Only East Carolina has thrown more interceptions than SMU’s 19 in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the bright side, Pitt only has eight interceptions this year. On the down side, Pitt did force six turnovers the last time out against Syracuse.

2. Make Sunseri win it. SMU has some pretty talented players up front. Defensive end Taylor Thompson, who has seven sacks and six forced fumbles on the season, is going to need a big game to slow down the Pitt running attack and to take Sunseri down. Ja'Gared Davis is also an important player for the Mustangs on defense -- he has 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Taylor Reed is a tackling machine and will be key to slowing down the Pitt run.

3. Pass game must get going. There is no escaping this -- SMU has to pass the ball in order to win. The Mustangs went 2-4 in their last six games largely for this reason: Scoring an average of 17.7 points during the stretch, SMU averaged just 223.7 yards through the air and threw six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Panthers have been much better on pass defense in the second half of the season but will be challenged by Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson -- each has over 900 yards receiving and the duo has combined for nine of the team's 16 touchdowns this season. If SMU can protect McDermott and connect on big pass plays early to take a quick lead, Pitt could find itself in serious trouble. The Panthers are not equipped to play from behind.

Season recap: SMU

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
9:30
AM ET
SMU MUSTANGS

Record: 7-5, 5-3 C-USA

The season appeared as if it would be an improvement over 2010, when the Mustangs won the West Division and played in the Conference USA championship game. They got off to a 5-1 start, including a huge 40-33 overtime win over cross-town rival TCU, their first win over a ranked team since the 1980s. SMU also avenged a loss to UCF -- which beat the Mustangs in the C-USA title game a year ago.

But then things began to fall apart for an offense that is known for its high scoring. J.J. McDermott, who replaced Kyle Padron in the season opener, started to struggle and the Mustangs ended up losing four of their final six games. In three of those losses, SMU scored a touchdown or less, unheard of for a June Jones run 'n' shoot offense. SMU squeaked out a 27-24 win over Rice to get to seven wins in the regular season for the second straight year. But SMU was unable to beat Tulsa and Houston this year, its top competition in the West.

Still, getting to a third straight bowl game tied the school record for consecutive bowl appearances. For a program ravaged by the death penalty, that is a huge measure of how far this program has come.

Offensive MVP: Zach Line, RB. Line led Conference USA in rushing for the second straight season with 1,224 yards and scored a league-best 17 touchdowns in just 10 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Still, he made the C-USA first team and was dependable all season long for an offense that struggled at times.

Defensive MVP: Taylor Thompson, DE. The Mustangs got a lot of clutch performances on defense, but Thompson was a C-USA first-team selection after leading the team with seven sacks and six forced fumbles -- that tied him for No. 3 in the nation.

Turning point: A 27-3 loss to Southern Miss. SMU only had 330 yards and 14 first downs in the loss, which started the slide at the end of the season. The Mustangs had opportunities in the second half, driving into Southern Miss territory twice, but they came away with no points. They also had nine penalties and were 4-of-13 on third downs.

What’s next: SMU plays Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, and then it is off to prepare for a new conference home, as the Mustangs are reportedly set to join the Big East for 2013. Coach June Jones has been mentioned as a candidate at several openings, but has reportedly assured his staff he is staying. For how long is always a question that has surrounded him everywhere he has gone.

Midseason report: SMU

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
10:30
AM ET
SMU MUSTANGS

Record: 4-1, 2-0 CUSA

The Mustangs made it to the Conference USA championship game last season, but now coach June Jones expects to win it. His team has its hands full in the West Division, but certainly the Mustangs have shown the potential to get back into the title game again this season. They have done it with a new quarterback. J.J. McDermott replaced an ineffective Kyle Padron in the season opener and has not let go of the starting job. McDermott has played well, throwing for 1,482 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions to rank No. 2 in CUSA in passing. Darius Johnson has proven to be a go-to receiver with 39 catches for 550 yards and four touchdowns, and leads the league in receptions per game and receiving yards a game. His teammate Cole Beasley is right behind him at No. 3 in both categories. Running back Zach Line once again is dominating on the ground, with 583 yards and 11 touchdowns already this season to lead CUSA. SMU has done a nice job on defense as well, ranking No. 2 in the league in total defense, giving up an average of 296.6 yards a game. Steps are being made, and none bigger than its 40-33 overtime win over cross-town rival TCU. It was the Mustangs' first win over a ranked team since defeating No. 22 TCU 21-10 in Dallas on Sept. 10, 2005. SMU is off to a 4-1 start for the first time since going 5-1 to begin the 1986 season. But the schedule has its challenges. The Mustangs get UCF this weekend in a rematch of last year's CUSA title game. They also have to play at Southern Miss, Tulsa and Houston. But the Mustangs have proved they can play with anybody. Will that translate into an even bigger milestone for the program this season?

Offensive MVP: RB Zach Line. You are making me choose just one? It was a tough call between Line and Johnson, but I am going with the guy who leads the league in scoring with 66 points. He has been incredibly valuable and durable once again.

Defensive MVP: LB Ja'Gared Davis. Plenty of candidates for this one as well. Taylor Thompson is third in the league with five sacks, and Taylor Reed leads the team with 39 tackles. But Davis has done a little bit of everything -- he has 28 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also has an interception, forced and recovered a fumble and has six passes defended.

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