No. 16 SMU’s perfect season lives for another week, barely. Sonny Dykes‘s Mustangs never trailed Thursday night in Houston, but two touchdown catches by Marquez Stevenson totaling 171 yards put the Cougars’ offense on the field with a chance to win the game — twice — inside the final three minutes. SMU’s defense held both times, and the Mustangs escaped with a 34-31 win.
SMU led 21-7 late in the first half before surrendering two late field goals, but the Mustangs wasted no time opening up their largest lead of the night when Patrick Nelson sacked Clayton Tune and forced a fumble, which SMU’s Richard McBryde recovered at the Houston 2-yard line. Xavier Jones pushed the Ponies’ lead to 28-13 one play later, but the 15-point cushion did not last long.
One play, in fact, as Stevenson caught the first of his two long touchdown passes, this one a 5-yard hitch at his own 30 that he raced 70 yards untouched to pull Houston within 28-20 at the 14:01 mark of the third quarter, 59 game seconds after the teams played a 21-13 first half.
From there, SMU’s shaky — the Mustangs came into Thursday night with 14 missed kicks — field goal unit came through with two field goals of 23 and 33 yards to give SMU a 34-23 lead with 8:56 to play.
When Rodney Clemons intercepted Tune — SMU’s third plus-territory takeaway of the game — the Mustangs had a golden opportunity to deliver a knockout blow. However, SMU could not move the ball and a 4th-and-8 completion to James Proche was called back for offensive pass interference, forcing a Trevor Denbow punt that was downed at the 4.
And for the second time of the second half, Houston needed only one play, one completion to Stevenson, to make it a game again, as Stevenson hauled in another short pass and raced all 96 yards for the touchdown. Tune’s pass to Christian Trahan brought Houston within 34-31 with 4:47 remaining. (Tune finished the game with 407 yards and two scores, both of the scorers and 211 yards — on five completions — were to Stevenson.)
SMU, which began the drive 1-of-6 on third down in the second half, converted a 3rd-and-7 from its own 16 but could not pull off a 3rd-and-10 from its 24, and the Mustangs punted the ball back to Houston with 2:21 left. Taking over at its own 24, Houston moved 20 yards in its first two snaps but advanced no further, as Tune fired incomplete on three straight passes to end the comeback effort 55 yards short of pay dirt.
SMU could not expire both of Houston’s two remaining timeouts, and Houston took over at its own 15 with 18 seconds and no timeouts. Tune hit Tre’von Bradley for 22 yards on the first play, and Jeremy Singleton for 18 yards on the second, taking the ball to the SMU 45 with four seconds left. On the final play of the game, a defense that came into the game second in the nation with 29 sacks recorded its seventh of the night, stripping Tune as time expired to secure the win.
SMU (8-0, 4-0 American) continues its best start since 1982’s 11-0-1 campaign and, perhaps more relevant and more impressive, matched the program’s most wins post-death penalty, pulling even with the 2009 and 2011 teams, both of which went 8-5. The victory also means SMU secured wins over TCU and Houston (3-5, 1-3 American) in the same season for the first time since 2005, and the second time since 1992.
The Mustangs accepted the ball to open the game and breezed down to a 1st-and-goal in just seven snaps, but then stalled out. Shane Buechele (20-of-38 for 203 yards with two touchdowns and one interception) threw incomplete on first down, and Xavier Jones (22 carries for 133 yards and two touchdowns) was stuffed for a 1-yard gain on second down from the Houston 8-yard line. Buechele found Kylen Granson for six yards on third down, taking the ball to the 1, where Dykes elected to roll the dice. Buechele hit Reggie Roberson, Jr., on a pick play, but Roberson dropped the ball and SMU came up empty.
The teams traded punts on the next three possessions before SMU finally broke through, moving 85 yards in seven plays — aided by 30 yards of Houston penalties — setting up a 3rd-and-10 strike from Buechele to Proche for a 15-yard touchdown.
Houston then raced down the field even faster than SMU, gaining 31-yards on a pop pass from Tune to tight end Trahan on the final play of the first quarter and then a 44-yard run by Mulbah Car on the first snap of the second quarter. Car’s run was ruled a touchdown, but replay brought it out to the 1. Bryson Smith completed the 5-play, 88-yard drive with a zone read keeper one play later, tying the game at 7-7 at the 14:28 mark of the second quarter.
The teams exchanged three-and-outs before Jones zigged and zagged 62 yards for a touchdown, putting SMU up 14-7, and then the Ponies’ defense brought out the bottle service when they recovered a backward pass by Smith, which slipped out of his hands just behind the Houston 47 and was recovered at the Cougars’ 32. Buechele put SMU up 21-7 five plays later with an 11-yard scoring toss to Granson.
Just as it seemed SMU had control of the game, a long drive and a turnover put Houston back in the game.
The Cougars gobbled up 6:18 of the 8:14 remaining in the second quarter to set up a 25-yard Dalton Witherspoon field goal, pulling Houston within 21-10. Amaud Willis-Dalton picked Buechele at the SMU 46 on the next offensive snap, allowing the Houston offense to set up a 34-yard Witherspoon field goal as time expired in the half.