SMU had been one of a small group of programs largely unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic, both from an in-house and scheduling perspective. That was until last weekend.
For the first time since their nonconference matchup against TCU was postponed Sept. 11, the Mustangs had their schedule interrupted when their American Athletic Conference game against Houston was rescheduled for Dec. 5, a result of COVID-19 issues within the Cougars' program.
SMU played eight games over a nine-week stretch prior to the postponement with the Cougars, and the Mustangs (7-2, 4-2 American) will travel to East Carolina (2-6, 2-5) on Saturday to face the Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium feeling something foreign: rejuvenated after a week off.
"I think this time of year everybody's beat up and from a physical standpoint we definitely were," Mustangs coach Sonny Dykes said. "But I think probably as much as anything else mentally we were a little fatigued and a little tired. If you go back and look at our schedule really since our guys reported, we haven't had consecutive days off since August sometime. And the reason we haven't is we didn't want our players to go home.
"I felt like from the very beginning if we could keep them together and keep them around people who were being tested, that would increase the likelihood of being able to play games and keep guys healthy. So that's been our approach: we haven't had a lot of days off."
Once the Houston postponement was announced, Dykes lightened the midweek practice load, allowing the Mustangs time to regroup before resuming practice over the weekend. On Sunday, the Mustangs followed a morning weightlifting session with an afternoon practice, and Dykes was pleased with the way the players approached the workload, recognizing the benefit of rest.
The Mustangs had suffered a disappointing 28-24 loss at Tulsa the previous Saturday. Getting an extra week to recover could prove beneficial as SMU prepares for the closing stretch.
"I think our guys are in a lot better spot than they were at this time last week," Dykes said. "Both mentally and physically."
East Carolina had its first three games of the season wiped out. A bout with South Carolina was canceled when the SEC settled on a conference-only schedule. Nonconference games with Marshall and Norfolk State were taken off the books thanks to COVID-19 issues.
As a result, East Carolina will play its regular-season finale against the Mustangs. That fact would seem anomalous, but given everything that has unfolded across the country, the Pirates are taking that reality in stride.
It certainly helps that East Carolina snapped a four-game losing skid with its 28-3 road win over Temple last weekend. With Senior Day at hand, the Pirates are aiming to carry the momentum of their previous contest through this weekend and to end the year on a high.
"That was my message to the team Sunday," Pirates coach Mike Houston said. "There's no doubt they feel the exact same way. You want to finish the season strong and put together a complete ball game. We did that a little bit against South Florida and Tulsa. There were some strong phases against Navy and Temple. As far as everything clicking in all three phases, we haven't done that this year.
"That was a big thing I talked to them about Sunday. I promise you that they want to."
--Field Level Media