Two weekends ago, SMU fans stormed the field. Saturday, the student section had more empty cups and cans than students midway through the third quarter.
Two weekends ago, SMU players yowled and celebrated so loudly that they could be heard during Houston coach Tom Herman’s press conference. Saturday, Memphis players left the Ford Stadium field, shouting “We bowling!” after reaching six wins.
Earlier this week, SMU landed in ESPN’s bowl projections. This week, they’ll surely be projectiled out of them.
Yup, 38-16 vs. No. 11 feels ancient, replaced with 51-7 and fresh memory of SMU vs. Memphis past. Ecstatic to embarrassed. Inflated to deflated. The impressive step SMU took just two weeks ago is a distant memory.
“Everybody’s embarrassed and hurt. I know I am,” quarterback Ben Hicks said. “That was about as embarrassing as anything I’ve been a part of.”
Loss and poor practice aside, SMU has still taken steps from last year. Four wins compared to two is enough to prove that. But the bowl game dreams may have proven too premature. Just when SMU gets on a winning streak, it comes falling back to the reality that it doesn’t know how to win consistently yet.
“I thought we were playing uninspired, as if we had arrived,” head coach Chad Morris said.
After Hicks said SMU had an unproductive and unfocused practice on Wednesday, it’s no surprise. That’s no way to prepare for a team trying to reach bowl eligibility after losing two straight games. And it’s an easy way fall behind in the way SMU did.
Memphis needed only two plays to go 81 yards and score on its opening drive. SMU gave Memphis the ball five yards shy of the end zone after Hicks was strip-sacked on the team’s second possession. Just 3:42 into the game, SMU trailed 14-0. When SMU had some life after a 91-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 14-7, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. At halftime, Memphis had scored 38 points.
A team that had just reached a .500 record certainly hasn’t arrived. One top-15 win doesn’t signal an arrival, as Morris said the week after. Falling into that mental trap leads to games full of missed tackles, blown coverages, free rushers, turnovers and an inability to execute a game plan.
SMU’s game plan was to run the ball early. The staff identified it as doable after watching Memphis on tape. In the Tigers two straight losses before Saturday, they allowed 447 and 362 yards on the ground, respectively.
“We obviously did not execute that, only rushing for 100 yards, some of that right at the end,” Morris said.
Through 10 weeks of the season, it’s rare to find a team without an identity. You could call SMU’s perfect inconsistency. Start 2-2, then lay an egg at Temple. Get back to 4-4 with the help of the first top-15 win in more than 30 years, then play the worst game of the season.
“I really think you’re going to find out a lot about this football program and this football team this week,” Morris said. “How these young men respond, how our staff responds moving forward. I think you’ll find out a lot about who we are and what we’re about.”
If nothing else, SMU has been in the position before. Morris challenged his team to respond and called out players during film review after the sack-filled, turnover-laden loss to Temple. SMU followed with two straight games without allowing a sack or committing a turnover.
For SMU to chant “We bowling!”, it needs a similar response.