Boasting one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country, Southern Methodist is coming off a week in which it forced five turnovers en route to a 55-31 win at East Carolina.
Tied for third in the nation with 23 forced turnovers, the Mustangs (5-5, 3-3) appear to be back on track coming into their AAC matchup with USF (8-2, 5-1) after winning three of its past four games.
Led by senior defensive backs Horace Richardson and Darrion Millines, SMU ranks second in the country in interceptions, with the pair combining for 11 of the team’s 17.
“They have a nose for getting interceptions,” USF coach Willie Taggart said. “It’s going to be another challenge for us on offense to take care of the football because they do a good job of taking it away.
“You look at a lot of the games they won and they’ve taken the ball quite a bit from other people and capitalized on it.”
Richardson, who was named last week’s AAC Defensive Player of the Week, added to his interception total against the Pirates, returning both of his interceptions for touchdowns.
At Tuesday’s weekly press conference, Taggart also sang the praises of junior defensive end Justin Lawler.
Lawler, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound edge rusher, is tied for fourth in the conference alongside USF junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez with six sacks.
“I think he’s a big time football player for them,” Taggart said. “He’s the real deal at defensive end. Very tough, and plays with fanatical effort. I think he leads the team in tackles, and that’s’ pretty impressive from defensive end to do that.”
As dynamic as the Mustangs are in taking away the football, they will be faced this week with stopping the seventh ranked offense in all of college football (520.5 yards per game).
SMU coach Chad Morris said the key to slowing down the Bulls’ explosive offense is containing junior quarterback Quinton Flowers.
Despite Flowers being the second-leading rushing quarterback in the country, trailing only Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson, Morris warns that his Mustangs must proceed with caution.
“Sometimes, the worst thing you could do is pressure this guy because that’s when he becomes at his best, “ Morris said.
“For him to rush for as many yards as they rushed for last week and throw for that many, this guy is definitely comfortable in the system that he’s in.”
Running an up-tempo spread offense similar to USF’s “Gulf Coast” attack, SMU’s focus is moving the ball through the air with standout wide receiver Courtland Sutton.
The sophomore receiver has 934 yards receiving and is second in the AAC with seven touchdown receptions.
The Mustang’s rushing attack is split between sophomore Braeden West and freshman Ke’Mon Freeman. The underclassmen have combined for 1,412 yards rushing, with each running back scoring six times on the ground.
If they manage to pull off the upset, SMU would become the eighth of eleven AAC teams to become bowl eligible this season.