RUSTON, La. — To Reggie Roberson Jr., the ball came in as if it were in slow motion.
It wasn’t a play that should have worked. It wasn’t a game SMU should have won. It wasn’t a drive — six plays, 36 seconds, 73 yards — that should have happened.
But it did. Rashee Rice tipped Tanner Mordecai’s last-second heave out of the scrum of defenders. Roberson stood in the end zone, all alone, watching the tipped ball methodically come his way. All there was left to do was catch the 33-yard prayer, and in doing so seal a 39-37 win for SMU over Louisiana Tech.
“I saw the ball coming my way and I was like, ‘Oh man, it’s right there for me.’ I talked to my Dad after the game and, for that to be my first touchdown back from injury…” Roberson said, trailing off thinking of the implications. “I just had to reach out and snatch it.”
“It’s surreal,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes added. “It is something we practice. We have a play called ‘Big Ben.’ Reggie was in the right spot.”
After being down 37-33, SMU needed 73 yards to score a touchdown with no timeouts. It proceeded to convert three first downs — two to Grant Calcaterra and one on the feet of Mordecai — to set up the Roberson touchdown.
The Mordecai Hail Mary, where he ducked multiple tacklers and continue to back petal out of the pocket until he ran out of room, was the most chaotic part the final drive.
“It has to be the craziest thing to happen to me in sports,” Mordecai said. “There are some things we need to do better [of course]. But this, I’m still at a loss for words honestly.”
But, like Mordecai said, a big part of what made the play improbable was that it should have never come to that.
SMU was sloppy for most of the game. The defense allowed 483 yards and 14.6 yards per completion. Routinely big plays set up Louisiana Tech for scoring opportunities.
Tech quarterback Austin Kendall finished with 351 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Four times he connected with his receivers for over 25-yard gains. Twice he hit his receivers for 45 yards, including one to set up Tech’s final field goal that gave it a four-point lead in the final minute of the game, forcing SMU into heroics.
SMU’s offense stalled out three times inside Tech’s 10-yard line. Twice it settled for field goals instead of touchdowns. Another time, early in the first quarter, it turned the ball over on downs after the combination of Tyler Levine, Ulysses Bentley IV and Tre Siggers were stopped at the goal line.
Added to the scoring troubles, Blake Maza missed an extra point. Had he made it, SMU probably would have played for overtime. Had SMU converted any of the go-to-goal situations, it would have most likely pulled away from Louisiana Tech much sooner.
SMU led for part of the fourth quarter, but went three and out on its final two possessions before the last-second drive. It allowed Tech to score a touchdown and a field goal to ultimately take a four-point lead into the final minute.
“This was a game we probably didn’t deserve to win. We got out played and out coached,” Dykes said.
But sometimes a bigger play can erase a lot of that. Saturday night was one of those times.
Mordecai finished with 395 yards and five touchdowns. Calcaterra had 103 yards receiving. Rice added two touchdowns and 73 yards.
In large part, it was Rice that kept SMU afloat as the defense allowed Louisiana Tech to continue scoring. He nearly at the game clinching touchdown, a five-yard catch at the goal line, until Louisiana Tech retook the lead and nearly won.
But the play that mattered in the end was a fluke ending to Roberson. It didn’t erase the bad, but it made it feel better. It also saved the expected 3-0 start for SMU going into its marquee non-conference, nationally televised game against TCU next week .
“There are going to be a lot of opportunities to get better and a lot of corrections to make,” Dykes said. “Clearly we are going to have to play better next week against TCU and I think we will. But we will take it.”