SMU head coach Chad Morris said he didn’t want the Mustangs to get too down on themselves following a 56-36 loss to TCU last week. He challenged his players to respond. Saturday night they did just that, racing out to a 30-14 halftime lead over Arkansas State en route to a 44-21 win at Ford Stadium to improve to 3-1 on the season.
“I thought that this was probably the most critical week since I’ve been here in terms of how these players responded,” Morris said. “That’s what these young men did.”
Early on, the game had all the makings of a shootout. SMU got on the board early after its defense forced a three and out, driving 86 yards down to the Arkansas State two-yard line. However, the Red Wolves defense stood firm, forcing SMU to settle for just three points.
Two drives later, Arkansas State found the end zone when Justice Hansen hit Omar Bayless for a 32-yard score to make it 7-3 Red Wolves. But SMU came racing back, scoring just under two minutes later on a 55-yard touchdown pass from Ben Hicks to James Proche to go up 10-7. It was the first of Proche’s two touchdown grabs.
On the ensuing drive, Arkansas State marched down the field, and capped it off with a 19-yard pass from Hansen to tight end Blake Mack to put the Red Hawks on top again. It was the last time they’d score until the fourth quarter.
“The storm came,” Proche said. “We took their best punch and it wasn’t enough.”
In the second quarter, SMU started to pull away. First, Courtland Sutton scored a rushing touchdown on a direct-snap from two yards out. Ke’Mon Freeman found the end zone with 3:32 left in the half on a 35-yard run to widen the gap to 24-14. Then Proche struck again, catching a Ben Hicks pass and breaking a tackle on his way to a 49-yard touchdown that put SMU up 30-14 going into the half.
The key to the Mustangs success was the run game. SMU rushed for 314 yards on 54 carries after running for just 124 yards and 99 yards in games against TCU and UNT. Xavier Jones paced the team with 146 yards and Freeman added another 95 and two touchdowns. SMU had 580 yards of total offense, its highest total of the season.
“Our backs can compete for being the best in the country,” Proche said. “We have a three headed monster.”
The Red Wolves could not get out of their own way. They racked up 12 penalties for 90 yards. Several of those penalties proved to be costly, but none more so than a flag for roughing the kicker that gave the Mustangs new life, and led to a touchdown.
Turnovers also cost Arkansas State. While the Red Wolves only turned the ball over twice, they did so at critical times. In the second quarter, trailing by three, Hansen found a wide-open Blake Mack who had nothing but green in front of him. He looked like he was going to score, but Jordan Wyatt had other ideas. He raced down the field, and grabbed Mack by the ankle, causing him to trip. Mack stumbled forward a few steps before fumbling the football into the end zone. Kyran Mitchell jumped on the loose ball for a touchback, and SMU dodged a major bullet. Morris said that it was among the most impressive plays he’s witnessed in his tenure at SMU.
“It’d have been so easy for someone just to let up a little bit,” Morris said. “But not Jordan Wyatt.”
For the second straight game, Courtland Sutton was kept in check. He only had two catches for 32 yards, and was overshadowed by Trey Quinn and Proche. Hicks was 16 for 32 for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s a competitor,” Morris said of Hicks. “There were a couple passes there that I wish we could’ve had back.”
SMU opens conference play next week with a game against Connecticut. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m.