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SMU will be put to the test at TCU

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- If SMU Mustangs coach June Jones named his kids Run and Shoot, well, would it be all that surprising?

Jones didn't invent the high-scoring offensive scheme, but he certainly has become synonymous with it. He brought the spread attack from Hawaii to SMU four years ago and it has served the Mustangs well, although Jones acknowledges it has yet to be as explosive as it could.

This season, particularly. Jones unseated two-year starting quarterback Kyle Padron for senior J.J. McDermott in the season opener at Texas A&M. McDermott has led the offense slowly coming to life as the Mustangs have averaged 36.7 points a game in three consecutive victories and more than 500 yards of total offense in the past two wins.

The more impressive figures from the past three games are 8.0 points a game and 190.3 yards a game. That's what the nation's 10th-ranked defensive unit has allowed to UTEP, Northwestern State and Memphis. The latter two have combined for seven points and 265 total yards. Last week's shutout at Memphis was SMU's first in 13 years.

Sure, you can call out the level of competition. Texas A&M, after all, put up 46 points and 458 yards in the disappointing season-opening blowout. That game went downhill fast with Padron throwing interceptions on the first two drives, quickly putting the defense on its heels as the Aggies went up 14-0. The quarterback change ensued as all was lost early.

Now, SMU faces its first significant test since Kyle Field swayed in the opener. The Mustangs (3-1) play at No. 20 TCU, which has also won three in a row behind an efficient offense that's purred right through the transition of four-year starting quarterback Andy Dalton to sophomore Casey Pachall.

So is the SMU defense for real or has it simply benefited from lower-level competition?

TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose offense has gotten off to some slow starts, has taken note.

"I think this is the best group on defense they've had since he's been there," Patterson said. "They really play together, they do what they need to do, they're physical; good football team. Very good football team."

A year ago, SMU played TCU tight, even led 17-14, but ultimately lost 41-24 in surrendering a respectable 375 total yards. As it heads to Fort Worth, SMU could be without top defensive back Chris Banjo, who is recuperating from a neck stinger. TCU will have last season's leading rusher, Ed Wesley, healthy and in the lineup significantly for the first time all season (he played one quarter and had six rushes in the opener against Baylor before reinjuring his shoulder).

Wesley threatens to make the TCU offense more dynamic than it's been in scoring between 35 and 55 points and averaging 437.2 yards a game. The balance is even more remarkable: 875 passing yards, 874 rushing yards. This, remember, without its top returning rusher and while breaking in a new quarterback.

"Just on film, they don't look any different to me than they did 10 years ago," Jones said. "They just keep putting people in, doing what they do and that's why they're good. They don't change what they do; they stay and make people adjust to them. They might do one thing new for you a game, but they're going to do what they do and they're going to beat you. That's their attitude."

As much as SMU's defensive improvement makes for a good story line, not to mention a needed component to challenge for the Conference USA championship, Saturday's game might come down to the Ponies' offensive prowess, no matter how well its defense is prepared.

So far, TCU and the 6-foot-5, strong-armed Pachall haven't missed a beat. SMU's offense, which likely will be without top receiving target Cole Beasley, who injured his right knee last week, has not developed a consistent rhythm, but has gained confidence in scoring 40 and 42 points in each of the past two games.

"Any time you have any type of success that builds your confidence," McDermott said, "the biggest thing is to clear the negative plays out of your head and just keep building on the positive ones. The biggest thing with any athlete is having confidence in himself."

Maybe it all comes together in Fort Worth. If it does, it could set up McDermott and the newly vaunted Mustangs D to run, shoot and defend its way back to the conference title game.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.