Mustangs rely on senior RB Line
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NEW ORLEANS — Approaching SMU on the schedule used to mean it’s time to warn the defensive backs.
Since the arrival of pass-happy coach June Jones in 2008, the Mustangs averaged 3,594 passing yards per season and weren’t afraid to launch from the shotgun, regardless of the score or situation. Whether SMU finished 1-11 as it did in Jones’ first season or in the three consecutive bowl trips that followed, the Mustangs’ unwavering air attack was a constant.
Yet as Tulane prepares to face the Mustangs (2-3, 1-0 Conference USA) at noon Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Green Wave (0-5, 0-1) is more concerned with how it performs on the ground than in the air.
“Our top issue this week is going to be stopping their run, which is different than what we usually say when we’re playing SMU,” junior linebacker Dominique Robertson said. “Normally, all week when we play them, we talk about making sure we don’t get beat deep or if there’s a way to double-cover any receivers, and now we’re really focusing on how to stop their running back.
“It’s not that they aren’t explosive anymore or can’t score like they always have, but they definitely do it in a different way than what we are used to seeing.”
Rather than repeatedly struggle with its inefficient passing offense, Jones has turned to senior running back Zach Line as the key cog in the SMU offense. Line currently ranks No. 2 in C-USA with 85 rushing yards per game, and gained more than 100 yards against Baylor and Texas A&M this season.
In his career, Line has eclipsed 100 yards in 17 different games, the second-most in school history, only trailing Eric Dickerson in the category.
“(Line) is something else now,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “He’s a good player, and I think that’s one of the keys to the game. If we can control that, we stand a great chance.”
But the Green Wave haven’t controlled much so far this season. Tulane has been outscored 212-45 in extending its losing streak to 15 games.
Yet Johnson believes if he can make SMU one dimensional it can find a way to slow down Line by crowding the tackle box. The Wave employed a similar strategy in a 24-12 loss to Rutgers on opening night, keeping pace with Scarlet Knights, who are now ranked No. 20 and leading the Big East.
Based on the previous performances of SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert this season, the opportunity to take the “shoot” from Jones’ famous “run-and-shoot” is possible. The Texas transfer is ranked No. 121 nationally in passing efficiency (ahead of only Tulane third-string quarterback D.J. Ponder), completing just 49.6 percent of his passes, connecting on five touchdowns and intercepted 10 times.
Still, Johnson expects SMU to spread the field with four receiver packages, and if Gilbert finds early success through the air against single coverage, it could open holes for Line and the rushing attack.
“Without giving our gameplan away, we’ve got some packages with five D-linemen — which we ran some against Rutgers — with two linebackers,” Johnson said. “This is a 10 personnel team — four wideouts and one back. They don’t use a tight end very much.
“We’ve got packages to handle all of that. We can add on one more, bring one guy down into the box, if we need to. What you don’t want to do is, you don’t want to put these young kids like (freshmen cornerbacks Lorenzo) Doss and (Jordan) Batiste on an island, but you’re almost forced to make them become grownups in a game like this.”
While slowing SMU’s offense down is critical, Tulane’s most prominent concern is when it has the ball.
The Wave ranks last nationally in numerous offensive categories (points scored, total offense, rushing yards) while the Mustangs have already shut out two opponents (UTEP and Stephen F. Austin).
The return of starting quarterback Ryan Griffin to the Tulane offense is expected to provide a boost. Griffin rested the past three games, but it’s still uncertain if the senior’s injured right shoulder is back to full strength.
Griffin said he’s not concerned about the sluggish statistics Tulane’s offense has produced nor any lingering effects on his arm. He is simply looking to secure a Green Wave victory for the first time since Sept. 17, 2011.
“I’m just so ready to get back out there and try to win a football game,” Griffin said. “I know things haven’t been great for us this season to this point, but that’s all in the past, and the only thing I’m focusing on and this team is focusing on is going out and trying to beat SMU. I don’t care how we do it, but we need to win one.”