There was a time where the running game defined the style of play at SMU.
The Pony Express was the most dominant offense in the country, with quarterback Lance McIlheney tossing the ball to star running backs like Craig James and Eric Dickerson, who ran all over every defense in the Southwest Conference.
Based on his play this season, Braeden West is trying to bring that back. He has amassed 636 yards on 115 carries thus far this season, including four touchdowns. That’s good enough for fifth in the American Athletic Conference, trailing only the vaunted rushing duos of Tulsa and USF. West has quickly become a breakout player for the Mustangs, and will look to continue his stellar play throughout the second half of the season.
After not breaking 100 yards in any singled game as a freshman, West has greatly improved as a sophomore for SMU. He emerged against Liberty, helping to propel a stagnant offense with 220 yards on 24 carries, including two touchdowns. On a night where the passing game struggled and could only manage 209 yards, West carried the load on offense, and ensure that SMU would have its second victory of the season.
However, big games against FCS schools don’t exactly make national headlines, and many fans wondered if West’s performance was simply a fluke against inferior competition, or if they were looking at the next great Mustangs running back. West would prove in the coming weeks that the latter was true.
Just two weeks later against Tulsa, West managed another phenomenal game. He carried the ball 22 times for 124 yards and a touchdown, helping the Mustangs to a season high 40 points, and narrowly losing to a Tulsa team that was double digit favorites coming into the game.
While coming up short certainly crushed the SMU locker room, West’s performance signaled he could certainly perform against some of the best teams in the AAC, and would be a fixture of the SMU backfield for years to come.
His following game against Houston was the stuff of legends. West notched 115 yards on just 18 carries, and got yet another touchdown. Additionally his 40-yard scamper in the dying moments of the first half set up the Mustangs for their fourth touchdown of the day, and a 28-7 lead that completely deflated the Cougars at half time. West was the unsung hero of the Houston game, and while the SMU defense deserves a ton of credit, it was the running game that truly drove the offense, and West was the star of that backfield.
Luckily for West and the rest of the SMU running backs, the hardest part of their schedule is over. From a rushing defense perspective, Tulane remains the toughest opponent on the schedule, as the Green Wave rank sixth in the conference in stopping the run. Their remaining opponents — Memphis, East Carolina, USF, and Navy — rank eighth, ninth, 10th, and 12th respectively. I’d imagine both Chad Morris and West are licking their lips thinking about how much they’ll be able to run all over their conference foes in the coming weeks.
As West becomes a star of the SMU backfield, Mustang fans are reminded of something more important: the team’s identity. Over the past few years of dismal football on the Hilltop, SMU has lacked the definitive identity that makes teams successful. With the emergence of West, and the running game as a whole, the Mustangs have found more of that. This is a team capable of running the football, controlling the clock, and utilizing the pass game in certain moments to take the top off the defense. That’s an identity SMU fans can believe in, thanks to the emergence of Braeden West.