The play was so uncharacteristic. Richard Moore, SMU’s sixth-year senior, had watched Tyler Sneed catch East Carolina’s fifth touchdown of the first half. Sneed had all but walked into the end zone.
But as the play reached its inevitable conclusion, handing the ball to the referee, Moore came over and shoved him. Penalty flags came flying in. This was the manifestation of frustration as a two-win East Carolina team ran up the tally to 42-7 on a shocked SMU group late in the second quarter.
It was the fitting image of a senior leader beginning to feel as though a flukey start, with trick plays and fake punts, was hardening into a harsh reality that SMU just could not stop the Pirate offense.
By halftime, the Pirates extended the lead by three more points. By the end of the game, a bottom dweller in the American Athletic Conference polished off a 52-38 win over an SMU team now with two straight losses for the first time in two years. It also is firmly out of the AAC conference championship conversation, something that seemed like a formality just two weeks ago.
“I’ve got to try to figure out a way to get our guys to play four quarters, and to think we’re not too good to show up and play hard against teams,” head coach Sonny Dykes said after the game. “I don’t know what it is about our guys right now, but I think we have an unrealistic view of ourselves.”
It was these small outbursts of frustration that defined a game that was SMU most head scratching loss since 2018. At first, it was more of just confusion as East Carolina seemed to throw its entire playbook at SMU in its final game of the season.
There was first the fake punt that SMU was unprepared for. Then ECU’s wide receiver Sneed threw a 35-yard touchdown on an end-around play.
This was enough to build a 21-7 lead, but this gave way to bigger issues for SMU. Shane Buechele was under duress the entire game. The offense couldn’t stay on the field, sometimes by penalties and other times by dropped balls. The defense, which at first was a victim to being unprepared, simply left too many blown coverages.
East Carolina, a team that hadn’t scored over 30 points once this season, was allowed to pass the half century mark. The most under-the-radar pieces for the Pirates, wide receivers like Blake Proehl, had 152 yards and two scores. ECU finished with 493 yards of offense, 100 more than SMU.
“We have to find a way to come out better in the first half on the road. We did this against Temple,” Dykes said.
It was hard to imagine this was an SMU team that just two weeks ago was playing for a spot in the conference championship game. The second half, where SMU tried its hand at a fervent comeback, did a little bit to remind people of its past form, but even that came up well short. A two-touchdown loss felt larger than that.
SMU managed to compile 31 second half points, including two Tyler Levine touchdowns. East Carolina turnovers helped in the effort. The game though, even when it was ostensibly close, never truly felt in doubt after ECU compiled the seven-score advantage.
There were moments that captured the true feeling in Greenville. After one interception in the second half, that effectively quelled any hopes of SMU coming back from a 38-point deficit, Buechele stood on the sidelines refusing to take his helmet off. Kylen Granson and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley come over to talk through the turnover.
At another point, cornerback Brandon Stephens was defending a play in the end zone and East Carolina wide receiver C.J. Johnson stepped over him to try to make a point. Johnson pointed to the scoreboard and Stephens, the SMU captain, had both palms to the sky as he looked at the ref. It was that type of day for a team now officially eliminated from the conference championship game discussion.
Buechele finished with 314 yards. Ulysses Bentley IV ended with 36 yards rushing. Austin Upshaw and Judah Bell, two of SMU’s wide receivers buried in the depth chart, ended up being the two leading receivers in a losing effort.
“When you play good teams, sometimes you’re going to lose. … It seems like we’ve run out of steam a little bit,” Dykes said.