Welcome back to the college football conference race, SMU. After last week’s loss to Cincinnati, SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said he would see what kind of character his players and coaches had. They had character with plenty to spare in a 51-37 win over Navy at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas Saturday night. The win elevated SMU to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the AAC. Navy drops to 3-4 overall and 3-2 in conference play.
SMU Bounces Back Against Navy
Few things symbolized it more than reserve running back Tyler Lavine. With the game comfortably out of reach, and the Mustangs holding a 44-17 fourth quarter lead, Lavine took a hand off at the Navy 48-yard line. He looked like he was down after a few yards. But he had the presence of mind to know that he had rolled over defenders on the ground and his knees and elbows never touched the field. While everyone else stopped, thinking the play was over, the officials had not blown the play dead. Lavine kept going and had himself a 48-yard touchdown, (and his first multi-touchdown game of his career).
If Dykes was looking for character plays, and players, there it was right along the SMU sideline. “I’m not going to lie to you. I kind of gave up on the play and just assumed he had gotten tackled,” Dykes said. “All of a sudden, I saw him running to the end zone, and the guys upstairs said it looked like he was never down. It was a heck of a run.”
Navy Comes Out Throwing
It was an oddity of a game early on. Navy historically lives and dies with the triple option run game, but they came out throwing, on purpose, Saturday night. The Midshipmen average four passes per game. They threw 30 in this game alone, with four of them coming in the first quarter.
Their first score of the game was set up by an 11-yard completion from quarterback Dalen Morris to running back CJ Williams down to the SMU three-yard line. From there, running back Nelson Smith took it in the final three yards, right up the middle to give Navy the early 7-0 lead. The only thing that looked normal about the drive though, by Navy standards, was that they burned 6:30 off the clock.
SMU’s offense was much the kind of balance Dykes, and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley want to see more of. Quarterback Shane Buechele had five completions on the drive, and Ulysses Bentley IV had 35 yards rushing, including the final four yards for a score. For the game, Buechele was 23 of 28 passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Mustangs also had 255 yards rushing with Bentley picking up 149 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
SMU Takes Control Before The Half
Navy took one more lead for the night in the second quarter. The Midshipmen needed only six plays to go 75 yards for the touchdown. All of the positive yards were on the ground, including Chance Warren’s seven-yard touchdown run. It was 14-7 Navy, and then reality hit. Four consecutive Buechele completions, (for 57 yards), put the Mustangs down at the Navy 18. Bentley took a hand-off on a play that was designed for the inside. But he saw the stack of defenders and quickly cut out to the left side and cruised into the end zone to tie the game at 14-14.
The SMU defense took center stage with a three-and-out stop of Navy. It was back to the ground game for the Mustangs offense. Bentley burst through a huge hole up the middle for 36 yards. Lavine found a similar size hole from the 10-yard line and had an easy trip into the end zone for the 21-14 lead.
Navy got a 46-yard field goal from Bijan Nichols to shrink the lead to 21-17.
Managing The Clock
SMU would get one more real drive in the second quarter. Compared to last week’s clock management debacle just before halftime, this was pristine. They moved 71 yards in 10 plays in a drive that started on the Navy 29, with only 1:14 on the clock. The Mustangs utilized their timeouts, got out of bounds on pass plays and moved with efficiency. It was everything that was missing at the end of the first half last week. Buechele hit Rahsee Rice in the middle of the end zone with a five-yard touchdown pass and the lead was 28-17 in what seemed like the end of the first half.
The clock efficiency left Navy with only :07 left on the clock. Nelson Smith was hit and fumbled. Gary Wiley recovered the ball at the Navy 18-yard line with one second remaining on the clock. Dykes sent kicker Chris Naggar out for the 35-yard field goal on the last play of the half and the lead was up to 31-17.
Putting It Out Of Reach
SMU’s first drive of the second half put the game away for good. Bentley had a 17-yard run, and Buechele picked up another 13 yards on a scramble. Then Buechele faked a quick screen pass into the flat, and instead went down the left sideline to Austin Upshaw for 42 yards and the touchdown. The lead was now 38-17, and Upshaw had his first career touchdown catch.
At this point Navy had been turned into a team that was being forced to throw out of necessity instead of scheme, and it is just not what their offense is designed to be.
The Mustangs added one more scoring drive in the third quarter. Buechele completed a pass to Bentley for 61 yards to the Navy 18-yard line. He then completed a pass in tight coverage along the right side of the middle of the end zone to Rice. SMU had scored on seven straight possessions and it was now a route at 45-17. On the night SMU was six for six in the red zone, a massive improvement over last week.
The Character Dykes Wanted
There were some late Navy scores in the football equivalent of garbage time, but this was the character showing after last week’s loss that Dykes said he knew his team had. “I believe in these guys. I love coaching them. And I love being around them. They’re invested. They do everything we ask them to do. I didn’t expect to see anything other than what we saw. It’s always good to see the guys respond the way you hope they would.”
Dykes said the run by Lavine was emblematic of the fight he expected his team to show after last week’s loss. “That’s indicative of the guys on our team. They keep fighting. They keep clawing. And they keep playing hard.”
But before anyone gets too full of the win, Dykes said this was not the complete performance yet. He was not happy about the late scores by Navy, when the Midshipmen scored three touchdowns in the final quarter. “I was disappointed that we let them score 21, and that just wasn’t good,” Dykes said.
The Mustangs travel to Temple for a morning (Dallas time) game.