TAMPA — The sublot Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium will center around SMU quarterback Shane Buechele, a grad transfer who started as a true freshman in 2016 at Texas under then-Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.
Things have gone pretty well for Buechele, the son of former major league infielder Steve Buechele, since moving up I-35 from Austin to Dallas. The Mustangs are 4-0, including a 41-38 win at then-No. 25 TCU last week in which he threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns.
On the season Buechele has thrown for 1,159 yards and seven touchdowns with four interceptions.
“His game is really elevated,” said Strong, who arrived at USF in 2017 after three years at UT. “He’s really learned the game. The older you get, the wiser you become and I think that is where he is. You don’t see him turning the football over. He’s making really good throws and getting them in the right place right now.”
The Bulls (1-2) are hopeful of being in the right place come Saturday. Specifically, getting off to a winning start in conference play following a bye week.
“We had a week off and it was a good time for us to work on fundamentals and technique and give them a chance to know what’s ahead and what we have to get prepared for,” said Strong.
USF got in the win column two weeks ago against South Carolina State. After getting blasted by Wisconsin and losing by four at Georgia Tech, the FCS opponent provided an opportunity to have a feel-good evening after a rough first two weeks.
The game marked the first career start for quarterback Jordan McCloud, who took over for senior Blake Barnett. The redshirt freshman will get his second start against the Mustangs.
“McCloud is the guy we are going with right now,” said Strong. “Blake understands that. Who knows what will happen down the road, but right now it’s McCloud.”
The Tampa native had many good moments, and a few not so good, against SCSU in his first start. Overall, though, it was a nice outing for the Plant High product, who completed 16-of-27 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns. He added two a pair of rushing TDs.
“The pace that we had, the tempo that we were playing with and the rhythm that we were playing with was great,” he said. “We need to continue that going into conference play. We need to finish and be more consistent. We have a lot to improve on. I know we scored 55, but honestly, it could have been more like 75. We left a lot on the table.”
Leaving points on the table against SMU would not be advisable. After all, coach Sonny Dykes’ team is averaging 43.5 points per game, tied for 16th nationally. Failed opportunities, such as not capitalizing on turnovers and coming away with field goals instead of touchdowns when in the red zone, things that have plagued the Bulls since the middle of last season, will likely prove costly.
The defense, to its credit, has looked pretty solid the past two games. Granted, the opponents were a Georgia Tech team overhauling its offense, and the lower level Bulldogs. Still, solid showings were welcome after the way last season concluded and this one opened.
“We’re rejuvenated, we feel good, coach (coordinator Brian Jean-Mary) is putting us in the right position and I think with a lot of guys it is starting to click,” said one of the unit’s new faces, corner and North Carolina transfer K.J. Sails. “We are going to be a real good defense moving forward.”
Sails and company need to be real good Saturday. SMU’s attack offers more than Buechele’s aerial exploits as senior running back Xavier Jones is averaging 93 yards per game, 5.1 per carry and already has nine total touchdowns. His eight rushing TDs are second nationally.
“More than anything, we just can’t give up the home runs,” said Strong. “They are going to take their shots. It’s one of those offenses where they will run the ball and run the ball, then take a deep throw on you. We have to be patient enough where, coverage wise, we are not misaligned and we can run with their receivers and cover them.”
Saturday game kicks off at 4 ET and can be seen on ESPNU.
USF has won three of four meetings against the Mustangs, splitting two at home….While the Bulls snapped their eight-game losing streak last time out, the skid remains intact against FBS teams. Included is a four-game losing streak at Raymond James Stadium in which they have totaled 45 points…..The Bulls have won five of their six American Conference openers with the lone defeat at home against Memphis (24-17) in 2015….With 85 yards, Jordan McCloud is the team’s leading rusher. Freshman Kelley Joiner is second with 64 yards (51 on one run vs. SCSU) and Jordan Cronkrite has 47. The Bulls’ 112 yards rushing per game place them 111th among 130 FBS programs….Oklahoma State transfer and linebacker Patrick Macon leads the team with 21 tackles and five tackles for loss. The Bulls have eight sacks, one each by eight players.
SMU is 4-0 for the first time since 1984 when they went 10-2 and finished No. 8 in AP poll. That was the last time the Ponies, as they are also known, won double-digit games. A recruiting scandal resulted in the NCAA shutting down the program for two years starting in 1987. Since resuming in 1989, SMU has not won more than eight games in any season. They most recently won that many in 2011 when the school was in Conference USA. SMU’s best season in the American was 7-6 in 2017….Senior receiver James Proche has a conference-leading 27 receptions and his 6.8 catches per game rank second. Receivers Reggie Roberson, Jr. (18.6 on 25 receptions) and Kylen Granson (18.3, 12) are both averaging more than 18 yards per catch….Senior receiver C.J. Sanders leads the conference with an average of 28.9 yards per kick return. He took one back 98 yards for a TD in the season opener against Arkansas State…..Senior linebacker Patrick Nelson leads the American and is tied for fourth nationally with 5.5 sacks. The Mustangs have registered a conference-best 15 sacks, which is tied for seventh nationally.