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2023 Week 7 Game Preview: SMU Mustangs @ East Carolina Pirates

The Mustangs and Pirates meet for the first time since 2020 in a Thursday night ESPN matchup.

East Carolina v SMU Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Thursday, October 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
  • Spread: SMU (-12)
  • Over/under: 51
  • All-time series: East Carolina leads, 5-4
  • Last meeting: East Carolina 52, SMU 38 — November 28, 2020
  • Current streak: East Carolina, 1 (2020)

Setting the scene

It’s going to get Rowdy at the Dowdy for a nationally televised affair Thursday night. East Carolina is arguably home to the best crowd in the AAC, packing Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with over 40,000 on a routine basis.

East Carolina (1-4, 0-1 AAC) hasn’t been able to replicate the success of the past two seasons, replacing substantial production from a 2022 team that was largely senior-led. The Pirates hope to utilize in-season development and primetime home field advantage to claim their first AAC victory of the year and make bowl eligibility a realistic possibility.

SMU (3-2, 1-0 AAC) is fresh off a bye week just like ECU. The Mustangs dropped a pair of contests to Oklahoma and TCU in non-conference play, but they’ve commandingly handled the rest of their schedule. SMU only faces one above-.500 team for the remainder of the season, so the Mustangs aim to collect this Thursday night road victory on a feasible pathway to their first-ever AAC title game appearance.

Fun facts about this series: The winner of the last six meetings between these teams scored at least 45 points. The winner of the last three meetings scored at least 52 points. The average point total in the last six meetings was 85, sorting out to 42.5 per team. So while this has been a high-scoring series in recent history, both SMU and ECU are more efficient on the defensive side of things for once.

SMU Mustangs outlook

SMU QB Preston Stone threw for 300 yards once this season, against Prairie View of the FCS. He looks to replicate that Thursday night at ECU.
Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SMU is typically renowned for its high-powered offenses, but not necessarily for its defenses. The Mustangs’ respective scoring offense and scoring defense rankings were 12th and 119th in 2022, 10th and 87th in 2021, 15th and 75th in 2020, and 7th and 110th in 2019. In fact, SMU hasn’t finished better than 75th in scoring defense since 2012.

But this year’s Mustangs team brings a different identity to the table. SMU is currently 37th in the FBS in scoring at 33.8 points per game but the defense is arguably the strongest facet of the team. They boast the 27th best scoring defense nationally, yielding just 18.4 points per game. Oklahoma’s fourth-ranked scoring offense posted just 28 points on the Mustangs — sitting at 14 points with 10 minutes remaining in that Week 2 contest. Only TCU broke 30 on SMU’s much-improved defense and the other three opponents each failed to crack 17.

So what does SMU do well under second-year defensive coordinator Scott Symons? The Mustangs rank second in the AAC in sacks at three per game. SMU exhibits some of the better defensive line play in the country with defensive ends Elijah Roberts and Nelson Paul providing substantial pressure on the edges as Oklahoma transfer defensive tackle Kori Roberson requires significant attention in the middle. They invade the backfield on a routine basis and five different defenders have at least three tackles for loss to their name through five outings.

There is no glaring weakness in either the run defense, which limits opponents to 3.4 yards per carry, or the pass defense, which is situated at 23rd nationally with a per game allotment of 182 yards. And here’s the most impressive part about SMU’s defense — the Mustangs are recording all these impressive stats without forcing takeaways. SMU has two interceptions and zero fumble recoveries on the season, and by dabbling in that department a bit more, this team can reach full defensive juggernaut potential.

The offense hasn’t been as sharp as it was in past years, remaining in search of its first 40-point game against FBS competition. Quarterback Preston Stone is still adjusting to life as an FBS starting quarterback, hoping for a breakout performance to boost confidence. Stone averages 238 passing yards per game on a 59 percent completion rate, and he aims to snap a 4-game streak of throwing at least one interception.

While SMU’s passing offense had the luxury of Rashee Rice last year, the Mustangs are still searching for a No. 1 option in a balanced passing attack. The top six targets all feature between 144 and 178 receiving yards this year, with Jordan Hudson, Jake Bailey, and Roderick Daniels Jr. all exceeding 170 on the season. The run game has shifted through several options as well, but Miami (FL) transfer Jaylan Knighton appears to be the feature back for the time being. Knighton is fresh off a 150-yard, 2-touchdown performance in the AAC opener against Charlotte, and he’ll be supported by LJ Johnson Jr. and Velton Gardner in the backfield.

East Carolina Pirates outlook

East Carolina v Michigan
ECU RB Javious Bond averages 6.7 yards per carry with 187 yards on the season. He is fresh off a career-high 72 yards at Rice.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

It hasn’t been an ideal season for East Carolina, which is one loss away from tying its total from the 2022 campaign. But Mike Houston and the Pirates understood the challenges heading into a year featuring a mass exodus of senior talent in the offseason. The Pirates are one of 13 teams without a victory over another FBS program this season, and a difficult road lies ahead with SMU, UTSA, and Tulane serving as three of the next four opponents.

ECU dropped its AAC opener 24-17 to Rice, allowing a 44-yard go-ahead touchdown with 6:24 remaining and failing to respond offensively. The Pirates were marred by four failed fourth down conversions in the fourth quarter alone, and converting critical downs has been a recurring issue for this 112th-ranked scoring offense. ECU moves the sticks on just 35.6 percent of third downs and 38.5 percent of fourth downs — ranking below 90th nationally in both facets. The aspect which the Pirates seek the most growth in is the passing game.

They’ve rotated quarterbacks between Mason Garcia and Alex Flinn this year with Flinn starting each of the last three contests. Flinn completes passes at a 49.1 percent clip with 611 passing yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions on the season. The 6’5”, 249 pound Garcia is the more mobile of the two, however, and he exhibits a season stat-line of 234 passing yards on a 58.2 completion percentage with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. Overall, ECU is 118th in passing yards per game and the Pirates feature one of the worst touchdown-to-interception ratios this season at 2-to-7.

The run game is where ECU’s offense witnesses a greater degree of success. Power back Rahjai Harris is the team’s leading rusher with 217 yards on the season, but he receives a nice boost from Javious Bond who averages 6.7 yards per carry on 28 attempts. Bond first saw substantial action due to an injury to running back Marlon Gunn Jr., and the freshman’s contributions have only increased as the season progresses. But gaining yardage on SMU’s front isn’t easy, and if the Pirates find themselves playing from behind again, they might air it out 44 times like they did in the loss to Rice.

Blake Harrell’s defense has been quietly sharp this season, and that was evident against Rice’s typically high-powered passing attack. ECU ranks 45th nationally in containing the run, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry, and an identical 45th in locking down the air with 210 passing yards surrendered per game. The Pirates function strongly thanks to sound linebacker play. Jeremy Lewis and BJ Davis have thrived from the outside linebacker spots thus far, as Lewis has four tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries while Davis holds five pass deflections and two forced fumbles to his name. Thursday will also be a busy night for free safety Julius Wood, who ranks first on the team in tackles for the second consecutive year. Just like SMU, East Carolina only picked off two passes in its first five games so Wood and the secondary hope to spearhead that effort in Greenville.


Thursday and Friday night games on national TV typically inject an unforeseen level of energy into home underdogs. Look no further than Oklahoma State’s trajectory-altering win over Kansas State last Friday.

Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will have an excellent crowd, but that won’t be enough to offset the difference between East Carolina’s current offensive execution and SMU’s defensive prowess. Expect the Mustangs to force plenty of punts in this one — several of the three-and-out variety — forcing ECU to play away from its strengths and test the air on a regular basis. While SMU’s offense is still sorting things out, the amount of opportunities the Mustangs create from defensive success should provide Preston Stone and Co. enough opportunities to generate at least five touchdowns.

Prediction: SMU 38, East Carolina 10