If there was a way to have euphoria and great concern at the same time, Gerald J. Ford Stadium at SMU was your place Saturday, as SMU outlasts Memphis 30-27.
The Mustangs ended the six-year losing streak against Memphis, thanks to Chris Naggar’s 43-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the game. But they also lost starting running back T.J. McDaniel and receiver Reggie Roberson, Jr. to what looked like ugly leg injuries. Further examinations will be needed on both before long term prognoses are known.
SMU Outlasts Memphis, 30-27
The two teams combined for more than 1,000 yards of offense for the second straight year. But there was a dearth of scoring in the second half, with the game ultimately coming down to Nassar’s leg. He remains perfect on the season.
The game started in the worst possible way for SMU with McDaniel injuring his ankle on the first play from scrimmage. As soon as he went down he grabbed the ankle and grimaced in pain. It hampered the SMU running game for the rest of the day. While Ulysses Bentley IV went into the game as the nation’s leading rusher, it is the tandem at the position that gives him fresh legs later in the game. Without McDaniel, the Memphis defense held Bentley in check width 32 yards on 13 carries.
Despite both offenses being able to move the ball early, they each got bogged down and had to settle for early field goals.
Buechele Starts Hot
On SMU’s next drive, quarterback Shane Buechele connected on two passes to tight end Kylen Granson for a combined 37 yards. He also rushed for 16 yards and Memphis was flagged an additional 15 yards for the late hit at the Memphis 10-yard line. Two plays later, Buechele double pumped before finding Danny Gray on an underneath slant to the goal post for the touchdown and the Mustangs were up 10-3. That was Gray’s third straight game with a touchdown catch.
The lead grew to 17-7 on the next series. SMU was at its own 25-yard line and picked up five yards total on two runs by Bentley. Buechele then found Roberson, who had blown past defensive back T.J. Carter, on a fly pattern. Roberson was a good four steps behind Carter when Buechele hit him in stride for a 70-yard touchdown pass.
It looked like the game was headed into blowout status later in the second quarter. Buechele scrambled in the backfield to keep the play alive, and took a few steps forward, barely avoiding the line of scrimmage at his own 15-yard line. Roberson again had gotten behind the defender and Buechele found him for an 85-yard touchdown play and a 24-3 lead.
Memphis Finds Its Pace
But Memphis, a team that had not played in nearly a month, finally found some rhythm on offense. Quarterback Brady White hit Calvin Austin on a tunnel screen and he cut to the middle of the field for the eight-yard touchdown catch. The lead was down to 24-10.
SMU went three and out on the next series and you could feel the momentum swing. Memphis needed only five plays to go 85 yards for the next score. Kylan Watkins cut to the outside for 44 yards to the SMU 27. Then White hit tight end Sean Dykes in the middle of the end zone from 27 yards out and all of a sudden it 24-17. Memphis added another field goal in the quarter to shrink the SMU lead to 24-20 at the half. The swing in stats showed the momentum shift. Memphis had only 75 yards of offense in the first quarter, (compared to 205 for SMU). But the Tigers came back with 267 yards of offense in the second quarter alone, (compared to 143 for SMU).
Offense Gets Sluggish
After the game, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes acknowledged that there was a lull in the locker room at half time and going into the third quarter. “It’s weird. At halftime we just seemed a little flat and really coming out into the third quarter,” Dykes said. “It seemed like, for whatever reason, we were a little flat in the second half on offense.”
Naggar got a 25 yard field goal in the third quarter to make it 27-20. But Memphis tied it at 27 when White engineered a methodical 6:33, 14-play drive. He completed a five yard pass to Tahj Washington to complete the 87-yard drive and tie game.
Whatever struggles SMU was having were augmented on the next series. From his own eight-yard line, Buechele scrambled before finding Roberson along the left sideline. Roberson was untouched but when he planted to make a cut to avoid the defender his knee buckled and he went down to the ground. He was helped off the field and eventually carted into the locker room. Dykes said they will do further examinations on he, and McDaniel on Sunday. But this is the second year in a row with what could be a significant knee injury for Roberson.
The drive moved to the fourth quarter with Rashee Rice eventually fumbling after a reception and turning the ball over to Memphis.
That’s Why He Is Here
For all of the offensive fireworks in the first half, both teams struggled sustaining drives in the fourth quarter.
With Memphis on the SMU 39 yard line and less than a minute-and-half left, the Mustangs’ Junior Aho hit White and stripped him of the ball. Elijah Chatman recovered it and gave SMU that last shot to get into field goal range.
Buechele moved them 33 yards in eight plays to give Naggar a chance at the game winner.
Dykes was clear in the off-season that the difference in the Memphis game last year was special teams. Getting a reliable special teams kicker was a top priority in the off-season. Getting Naggar, the transfer from Texas, was just what Dykes ordered.
Dykes said he was so confident in his kicker that he was already planning on what to do with the ensuing kickoff. Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield burned two timeouts trying to freeze Naggar. The kicker’s confidence never wavered. “I had no doubt it was going in. He could have called 17 more timeouts. I felt great. My leg felt fresh.”
The Mustangs are still a ways off from maintaining consistency throughout an entire game. But they are 4-0 on the season, and most importantly, 1-0 in AAC play. Dykes had made it clear Monday that with all the oddities of this season, starting 0-1 would make it harder to compete for the conference championship. Saturday night he said, “If you want to win a championship, you have to beat the champion, and that’s the defending champion in our conference. Our job is to compete for conference championships.”