Bowl berths on line for Herd, SMU
HUNTINGTON -- The scenario couldn't be more clear on the Marshall University football side: A win over SMU plus a win over Tulane equals a likely bowl trip with a destination to be named later.
But when the Thundering Herd (4-6, 3-3 Conference USA) lines up against the SMU Mustangs (5-5, 4-2) at 3 p.m., Saturday, at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, there will be equal motivation for the home team.
Make that extra motivation.
Not only are the Mustangs fighting for their bowl lives, too, they also have a shot at taking over the reins in C-USA's West Division.
For the third time this season, that is.
SMU flopped in its two previous chances to make moves on Houston and Tulsa, the West's two other title contenders, falling to the Cougars on Oct. 23, then flat-lining at UTEP on Nov. 6, a day after Houston lost to UCF.
Those two losses have the Mustangs in a first-place tie with Tulsa (4-2) and just a half-game up on Houston (4-3).
But, courtesy of the Golden Hurricane's 28-25 victory over Houston last week, SMU now controls its West Division destiny.
"We're not where we thought we would be at the beginning of the season," Mustangs quarterback Kyle Padron said. "We thought we would be a little bit better, but everything happens for a reason and we're set up to hopefully come out with the West Division.
"We just have to take care of business. This (Marshall) game is only the most important because it's the next one."
And it's the most winnable one.
If the Mustangs, a 131/2-point favorite, stub their hooves against the Herd, bowl chances get a lot slimmer the following week at East Carolina (6-4, 5-1). The Pirates are 4-1 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this season, including a 37-10 walloping of Marshall on Oct. 23.
With that in mind, the Herd knows darn-well where SMU's focus will be Saturday.
Marshall's just going to try to distract that focus for three hours.
"I think it's about the same as last year when we played them," MU linebacker Tyson Gale said, referring to the Herd's 34-31 win in Huntington, which dashed the Mustangs chances for a 2009 West title. "They were looking for some things that we took away from them.
"(This year), we're going to try to, obviously, put their bowl hopes on the final week of the season. And we're going to try to go out and get win No. 5 and put ourselves in position to come home and get another one. We'll hopefully ruin their party for an extra week or so."
Ironically, it's an extra week that's given the Mustangs a chance to clear their minds following that head-scratcher of a 28-14 loss at UTEP.
The Herd will get a fresh SMU squad Saturday that's coming off a 14-day rest.
"It gave us a chance to sit back and learn from the mistakes we made in that (UTEP) game," Padron said. "We needed to get some guys rested up and get some guys who were injured back on the field for us.
"(The bye) happened at a good time. After a loss, it made us a little bit better."
Really, it could only get better after its stinker in El Paso. Among its many flaws against the Miners, SMU committed 10 penalties for 118 yards and was down 14-0 after the first quarter.
"Saturday night's venture into the Sun Bowl did not go as SMU planned. Not nearly," wrote The Dallas Morning News newspaper's Kate Hairopoulos.
Obviously, there was room for improvement. Fortunately, the Mustangs have had plenty of time to do it.
"There were a lot of little things we worked on," Padron said. "Whether it was just throwing the ball on the outside shoulder or just the offensive line, receivers and everybody coming together as a cohesive unit. Just executing better on offense. On defense, we tried to get them to play a little bit faster. Tried to create a little more havoc and a few more turnovers for us and give some more opportunities with the ball."
When they do get the ball, the SMU offense is dangerous. Padron has tossed for 2,745 yards and 23 touchdowns to eight interceptions. His favorite target is senior receiver Aldrick Robinson, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist who's totaled 50 snags for 994 yards and 10 scores. Zach Line leads C-USA in rushing with 972 yards on 149 carries.
It's a trio that's hoping to play in a C-USA championship game come Dec. 4.
"We've been blessed to have multiple opportunities to get there, we just have to try to take advantage of it this weekend," Padron said.