A win over Rice next week could send the SMU Mustangs bowling for the fourth straight year but that is not all
By Matthew Postins
There is still plenty at stake for the SMU Mustangs.
Their 34-6 victory over Southern Miss Saturday night kept the Mustangs (5-5, 4-2 in Conference-USA West) in the hunt for the West Division title. They still need some help, but they’re still in the race with two games remaining.
“We’re still together,” SMU defensive tackle Margus Hunt said after the game. “No one has given up. We’re still working hard. No one has given up on this season.”
SMU needs one more win to be bowl-eligible for the fourth straight season under head coach June Jones. If SMU can beat Rice next weekend, and Tulsa (8-2, 6-0 in C-USA West) loses to Central Florida, then SMU’s season finale with Tulsa at Ford Stadium on Nov. 24 would be for the C-USA West title and a berth in the C-USA championship game.
SMU came into Saturday’s game focused on being more physical and taking advantage of USM’s (0-10, 0-6) inability to stop the run. The Mustangs did both.
The Mustang defense forced two turnovers, which SMU’s offense turned into 14 points. The Mustangs allowed just 178 total yards. SMU gained 186 yards on the ground and had a surprising leading rusher – quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
“Our defense played real well,” SMU head coach June Jones said. “Garrett ran well and Zach (Line) gave us what we needed early in the game.”
Hunt and the defense sacked the quarterback three times, with linebacker Taylor Reed finishing with 1.5 sacks. SMU linebacker Ja’Gared Davis didn’t have a sack, but did knock out USM quarterback Chris Campbell late in the second quarter, a play that resulted in an interception. USM possessed the ball for just 23 minutes and punted eight times.
“We played very physical,” Hunt said. “We watched the game film against UCF and we didn’t play as physical as we needed to. We put an emphasis on that this week.”
The oddity of a quarterback being the leading rushing in a June Jones offense was hard to ignore. Gilbert finished the contest with 94 yards rushing on just five attempts, two yards more than Line. Gilbert also had two rushing touchdowns and now has six rushing touchdowns in SMU’s last three games.
Jones said there was a difference between Saturday’s game and the previous two games. Gilbert’s runs against USM were by design, while his runs against Memphis and UCF were improvised.
“We saw some things on film that we thought we could take advantage of,” Jones said. “I guessed right and Garrett ran well.”
Gilbert jump-started the scoring on the opening drive with a 36-yard touchdown run and ended the game with a 19-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Gilbert still threw the ball, passing for 249 yards and a touchdown.
“They slanted toward Zach quite a bit tonight, so that created some lanes for me in the running game,” Gilbert said. “I might have rushed for that much (94 yards) in Pop Warner.”
USM had little to play for but tried to hang around. Gilbert said that SMU wanted a quick start and the Mustangs played well in the first half, but missed some opportunities after Gilbert’s opening touchdown run. SMU piled up yardage, but was up only 13-6 when the game turned SMU’s way late in the second quarter, a time during which SMU’s defense victimized Campbell.
First, Hunt picked off Campbell at the USM 41 and returned it to the USM 32 with 4:16 left. It was Hunt’s first career interception and he wasn’t exactly expecting the ball.
“Right place, right time,” Hunt said. “We’re always taught to be aware of the ball. I just happened to be there. I saw the ball and once I realized I had it I thought, ‘I need to get out of here.’”
SMU capitalized on the turnover with a heavy dose of Line. The senior carried four straight times on the drive, the last a 3-yard touchdown plunge with 1:45 left in the second quarter. That extended SMU’s lead to 20-6.
Line’s touchdown was the 41st rushing touchdown of his career and tied him with Michigan’s Denard Robinson for the third-most rushing touchdowns among active FBS players. Line finished the game with 92 rushing yards.
USM took over at its own 25 and tried to close the gap. But SMU picked Campbell off again. This time Jeremy Gray stepped in front of a pass at the SMU 20 and returned it 62 yards to the USM 18, giving the Mustangs 30 seconds to put more points on the board.
That’s exactly what they did, as Gilbert hit wide receiver Darius Johnson for a 9-yard touchdown reception with just 9 seconds remaining. That gave SMU a 27-6 lead.
Jeremy Johnson and Der’rikk Thompson each had eight receptions for SMU, with Johnson leading with 97 yards. SMU senior receiver Austin Fuller made his first career start and caught his first career pass in the first quarter, finishing the game with seven catches for 59 yards. Fuller said after the game that he learned he would be starting on Thursday, and Jones said Fuller got the start because they were looking for more physical play at the position.
“I feel pretty sore,” Fuller said. “It was nice to contribute in the offense and not just on special teams.”
Notes: The win was SMU’s first over USM in four tries. … SMU is now 14-1 in C-USA home games since the start of the 2009 season. … Line now has 1,032 rushing yards this season. This is Line’s third straight 1,000-yard rushing season, making him the second player in SMU history to pull off the feat (Reggie Dupard). Line is also the fourth player in C-USA history to pull off the feat, a list that includes former Memphis back and current Carolina Panther DeAngelo Williams. Line also passed Dupard for fourth in SMU history in all-purpose yards (4,524 yards). Line’s next rushing touchdown will allow him to pass Dupard for second in SMU history in that category.