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Thursday’s Top Action
By Sportsbook

SMU MUSTANGS (1-4) at HOUSTON COUGARS (4-0)

Line: Houston -25; Total: 74.5

Houston tries to remain unbeaten on Thursday night when it hosts heavy underdog SMU in a matchup of Texas teams in the American Athletic Conference.

The Mustangs started the season 3-0 ATS (1-2 SU), but have allowed 97 points during a two-game ATS skid to 13-point underdog James Madison and 5.5-point road favorite East Carolina. The Cougars have rolled up three straight ATS victories, prevailing at 13-point favorite Louisville before big wins over Texas State (59-14) and at Tulsa last week (38-24).

These teams are meeting for the 11th consecutive year with Houston holding a commanding 8-2 SU (6-4 ATS) advantage over SMU in this series since 2005. The past six meetings have all been blowouts with the Mustangs winning by 30 in 2012 and the Cougars five victories coming by 23, 25, 30, 34 and 26 points last year (35-9). The 2014 matchup was actually a 9-7 SMU lead at halftime before Houston closed the game with 28 unanswered points.

Most of Thursday’s betting trends lean towards the Cougars, such as their 8-1 ATS record versus good offenses (31+ PPG) in the past three seasons and home favorites of 21.5 to 31 points with an incredible offense (6.4+ yards per play) going 34-7 ATS in the past 10 seasons after 6.75+ yards per play in two straight games. But the Mustangs are 20-9 ATS versus good rushing defenses (120 or less YPG allowed) since 1992, including 3-0 ATS in the past three seasons.

Injuries shouldn’t be a big factor here, but SMU did lose DB Rodney Clemons to a season-ending knee injury last week while CB Horace Richardson (undisclosed) is questionable for Thursday. Houston’s only new injury is WR Linell Bonner, whose bad hamstring has him listed as questionable for this matchup.

SMU’s offense has been pretty effective this season with 31.4 PPG on 429 total YPG. A strong 23.4 first downs per game has kept the time of possession well over 30 minutes per game (32:39). Junior QB Matt Davis has thrown for 1,182 yards (8.1 YPA) on 60% completions, 8 TD and 2 INT, including four straight games without throwing a pick. But Davis did very little versus Houston last year, as nearly half his 145 yards (13-of-27, 5.4 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT) came on a 67-yard touchdown pass.

However, Davis didn’t have freshman WR Courtland Sutton that game, which could make a huge difference on Thursday. The 6-foot-4 Sutton has been unbelievable with 21 catches for 450 yards (21.4 avg) and 5 TD, and no other Mustangs receiver has more than 13 catches, 163 yards and 2 TD.
The rushing attack has also been strong with 185 YPG on 4.0 YPC. Davis is the club’s leading rusher with 380 yards (4.3 YPC) and 6 TD, while freshman RB Xavier Jones has contributed 279 rushing yards (4.1 YPC) and four touchdowns.

The SMU defense has been dreadful though, allowing 44.4 PPG and 593 total YPG, including 51.0 PPG on 668 total YPG in the past three contests. The run-stop unit has been gashed for 285 YPG on 6.6 YPC and the passing defense has also been burned for 309 YPG on 60% completions and 10.0 YPA. One area the defense has flourished is turnovers, as it has 11 takeaways this year, including five over the past two weeks. Forcing miscues will be a big factor in determining whether or not this game stays close, because the last time SMU won in this series in 2012, it forced nine turnovers. However, this year’s Cougars team has just three giveaways over four games.

Houston’s offense has been potent all season with 45.7 PPG on 604 total YPG, including 55.5 PPG and 658 total YPG in two home games. The team has both rushed for more than 225 yards and thrown for more than 225 yards in all four contests.

Junior QB Greg Ward Jr. has completed 70% of his passes for 1,058 yards (8.9 YPA), 8 TD and only 1 INT. Although he didn’t throw a touchdown last week at Tulsa, he did run for three scores as part of his 182 rushing yards (9.1 YPC). He now leads the Cougars with 472 rushing yards (7.3 YPC) and seven touchdowns. While Ward didn’t throw very effectively at SMU last year (17-of-28, 144 yds, 5.1 YPA, 0 TD, 1 INT), he did his damage on the ground with 93 yards on 14 carries (6.6 YPC) and three touchdowns.

Senior RB Kenneth Farrow (385 rush yds, 5.2 YPC, 2 TD) was Houston’s leading rusher in that win in Dallas with 110 yards on 18 carries (6.1 YPC) and 2 TD. The other star for this Cougars offense is junior WR Demarcus Ayers, who has 32 receptions for 377 yards and 3 TD. Ayers has been much more potent in two home games (247 rec yds) than in two road tilts (130 rec yds) this year.

The Houston defense has been solid this season in limiting opponents to 23.2 PPG and 398 total YPG, including 82 rushing YPG on a mere 2.4 YPC. Opponents have chosen to take the air much more though, gaining 316 YPG on 60% completions and 7.6 YPA. The unit has been able to keep opponents’ scores low by forcing 11 turnovers, including 10 in the past three games. With SMU already having three games with 2+ giveaways, the Cougars will be going after the football on Thursday.

WASHINGTON HUSKIES (2-2) at USC TROJANS (3-1)

Line: USC -17, Total: 56

No. 17 USC looks to care of business on Thursday night when it entertains conference foe Washington.

The Huskies failed to cover for the first time this season (3-1 ATS) in their last game on Sept. 26 when they lost 30-24 at home to 1-point underdog California. That same day the Trojans embarrassed Arizona State in Tempe with a 42-14 thrashing to improve to 3-1 ATS.

These Pac-12 schools are meeting for the first time since 2012 when USC won 24-14 at Washington. Since 2002, the Trojans hold a commanding 9-2 SU advantage in this series, but the Huskies have the 6-5 ATS edge in this timeframe.

Bettors of both schools have some nice trends to look at with Washington 13-4 ATS coming off an upset loss as a home favorite since 1992 and head coach Chris Petersen’s 23-9 ATS mark on the road versus good passing teams (58%+ completions). Those expecting USC to win big can point to the fact that underdogs of 10.5 to 21 points in a game involving two excellent passing teams (8.3+ YPA) after allowing 8+ YPA in the previous game are a miserable 6-30 ATS since 1992. Also, Steve Sarkisian is 9-1 ATS at home versus good rushing defenses (120 or less rushing YPG) in his head coaching career.

Sarkisian certainly knows his Thursday opponent having coached at Washington for five years (2009-13) before taking his current gig with USC. But he will have a handful of injury concerns with WR Darreus Rogers (hamstring) doubtful and DTs Antwaun Woods (pectoral) and Claude Pelon (ankle) both questionable for the Trojans. The Huskies have only one significant injury with FS Budda Baker (ankle) listed as questionable.

Washington’s offense has picked up some steam in the past three games with 34.7 PPG and 415 total YPG. Freshman QB Jake Browning has not played well against a top-notch opponent though, gaining only 302 passing yards, 0 TD and 3 INT in two games versus Power 5 schools (Boise State and Cal), as opposed to a hefty 694 yards, 5 TD and 1 INT versus smaller schools (Sacramento State and Utah State).

His top receiver this season has been junior fullback Dwayne Washington (17 rec, 223 yds, 2 TD), who racked up an impressive 109 yards on 10 catches and a touchdown in the loss to Cal. Browning’s top wideout is WR Jaydon Mickens (13 rec, 121 yds), who is averaging only 9.3 yards per catch and has not scored a touchdown yet.

The Huskies have not done a great job running the football with a mere 107 YPG on 3.6 YPC. This includes just 181 yards on 62 carries (2.9 YPC) over the past two games. Freshman FB Myles Gaskin leads the team with 209 yards on 39 carries (5.4 YPC), but most of those yards (146) came against Sacramento State. In the other three games, he has only 63 yards on 25 carries (2.5 YPC). But the biggest deficiency of this offense is turnovers, as the team already has 10 giveaways, including eight in the past two games.

Defensively, Washington has played great football in allowing only 15.7 PPG and 321 total YPG (4.3 yards per play). This includes the last game against the explosive Cal offense when the unit surrendered 481 yards and 30 points. The run-stop unit has been particularly stout this year in holding opponents to 104 YPG on a mere 2.6 YPC. The Huskies have also forced seven turnovers, including two takeaways in three of the four contests. But taking the ball away from their Thursday opponent won’t be easy considering the Trojans have committed only two turnovers all season.

USC’s offense has been rolling this season with 46.7 PPG on 532 total YPG. Senior QB Cody Kessler has thrown at least three touchdowns in all four games, totaling 15 TD and only 1 INT to go along with his 1,297 passing yards, 10.6 YPA and 73% completion rate. Sophomore WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has been incredible this year with 537 receiving yards (19.9 avg) and 6 TD. He has scored touchdowns in all four games and has gained at least 89 yards in all four contests. Although Smith-Schuster is dealing with a personal issue, his status is probable for Thursday.

The Trojans have slipped a bit rushing the football though with only 231 yards on 3.9 YPC in the past two games. Despite blowing out Arizona State in the most recent contest, USC managed only 76 yards on 32 totes (2.4 YPC). Freshman RB Ronald Jones II is the team’s leading ball carrier (242 rush yards, 8.1 YPC) and ran well against the Sun Devils with 54 yards on 10 totes. However the No. 2 option, senior RB Tre Madden (213 rush yards, 5.8 YPC), was held to an anemic seven yards on nine carries.

The USC defense allowed 41 points in a loss to Stanford, but only 29 points combined in the three wins. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering the team’s hefty 35:26 average time of possession. The Trojans have given up chunks of yardage though with 410 total YPG broken down as 164 rushing YPG (4.0 YPC) and 246 passing YPG (6.6 YPA). While USC has forced eight turnovers, four of those came last game at Arizona State and the other four came in the season opener versus Arkansas State. With Washington’s lack of ball security this year, look for the Trojans defense to really go after the football on Thursday night.