The holidays came early for the SMU football team as they defeated Tulane University 26-21 on Saturday in both teams’ final game of the regular season. With a 7-5 overall record, the Mustangs (7-5, 6-2) are guaranteed a bowl bid for the first time since 1984, ending the nation’s fourth longest bowl drought.
University of Houston and East Carolina University will play for the Conference USA Championship and a chance to play in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl, most likely sending SMU to the Hawaiian Islands to play in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24. The last time the Mustangs played in a bowl, they defeated Notre Dame 27-20 in the Aloha Bowl.
“Obviously we’d love to have SMU and the Mustangs and coach Jones,” David A.K. Matlin, the bowl’s executive director told The Dallas Morning News. “There’s a lot of excitement in Honolulu about it. He’s turned around two programs in very similar ways.”
With seven wins compared to the team’s previous 1-11 record, this year’s team has the best single-season improvement in SMU history, tying them with Idaho for the most improved team in the country. The 7-5 record is only the team’s second winning season in 20 years.
Playing in his last home game, senior wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders made the afternoon even more memorable, setting the SMU single-season record with 1,215 receiving yards, passing Jerry LeVias’ record of 1,131 receiving yards. Sanders set the record with a 75-yard reception in the second quarter. While not scoring any touchdowns, Sanders still holds the record among active NCAA players with 33 touchdowns.
Sanders also had his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season and the 15th of his career.
Running back Shawnbrey McNeal also had a 100-yard rush game for the fourth time this season, making it the second game of the season that an SMU receiver and running back have totaled more than 100 yards. Sanders finished Saturday’s game with 144 receiving yards. McNeal had 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The duo’s numbers also mark the second time in the team’s history the Mustangs have had a 1,000-yard receiver (Sanders) and a 1,000 yard rusher (McNeal).
“It’s kind of strange,” Sanders told The Dallas Morning News. “When we first started winning, guys were excited. Now we expect to win. If we win, it’s like, okay, we won again. And that’s how you want the program to be.”
McNeal, with two touchdowns against the Green Wave (2-9, 1-7), including a four-yard run for the winning touchdown, reached 1,125 rushing yards in his first year on the Hilltop, making him the first 1,000-yard rusher at SMU since Keylon Kincade had 1,280 yards in 2003. McNeal’s 1,125 makes him the first 1,000-yard rusher for June Jones as a collegiate head coach.
Led by freshman quarterback Kyle Padron, the Mustangs totaled 445 total yards compared to the Green wave’s 345. Padron was 20-of-34 for 264, with no interceptions or sacks. Padron, in his fifth start, has helped lead the team to second place in SMU history with 3,206 passing yards and 4,559 total offensive yards.
Aldrick Robinson, with 25 receiving yards against the Green Wave, combined with Sanders for 1,839 receiving yards, for the second-highest tandem in the program’s history.
Despite the record-setting performances of several members of the Mustangs’ offense, SMU’s defense struggled against the Green Wave, allowing Tulane to take a one-point lead in the fourth quarter. Down 21-20 with 10 minutes left, Padron led the Mustangs down the field, capped by a four-yard run by McNeal to put SMU ahead 26-21. SMU freshman linebacker Ja’Gared Davis then forced a fumble with 10 seconds remaining on fourth and 22, allowing Margus Hunt to swoop in and recover the ball on Tulane’s 31 to end the game.
“I knew I came here for a reason,” Jones told The Dallas Morning News. “One day I’ll share that with you,” Jones said. “I’ve been on a lot of teams, a lot of winning teams, but these guys have really honored the spirit of God, to be quite honest. It only happens to me in these situations where you’ve been losing for so long. It makes it really special when you get it turned around.”