A 20-point loss isn’t normally a building block, but the SMU Mustangs learned a lot about themselves in a 45-20 loss to No. 19 Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor.
“I thought we took a big step forward today as a program,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “I was really proud of our players and I thought they played really, really hard. I thought we played tough and I don’t think our guys were intimidated at all. I thought we played really physical football.”
SMU came into the game as big underdogs, but they didn’t play like it in the early part of the first half. The defense was a big reason why. It forced Michigan to go three-and-out on its first drive of the game and then a punt on the second drive. Just before the end of the quarter, the Wolverines drove down to the SMU 12-yard line, but on third down, Mikail Onu intercepted Shea Patterson in the end zone to deny Michigan a chance at points.
“The thing that we did is that really helped was running 65 plays this week [on offense],” Dykes said. “I think we only went up against 59. Our offense being on the field and keeping our defense off of the field certainly helped out.”
Michigan finally got on the board early in the second quarter when fullback Ben Mason scored with a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down.
SMU answered back on the very next series when Ben Hicks found a wide open James Proche down the left sideline for a 50-yard touchdown pass that tied the score. With C.J. Sanders and Reggie Roberson injured, Proche became Hicks’ featured target. He finished the day with a career-high 11 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns.
The Mustangs had Michigan up against the ropes on the Wolverines’ next drive. On third and one, Michigan running back Chris Evans was stuffed for no gain. But once again, the Wolverines rolled the dice and went for it. Evans got the ball again and looked to have been stopped short, but the officials awarded Michigan a first down. Because the Mustangs were out of timeouts, they could not challenge the call.
Dykes was not pleased. He got up in a referee’s ear on the SMU sideline and began to argue with him, drawing a 15-yard penalty in the process.
“Shouldn’t have gotten the flag,” Dykes said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I know what warrants a flag and what doesn’t and I shouldn’t have got that flag. Still, it was a mistake on my part, but that guy shouldn’t have given me a flag.”
On the next play, Michigan scored, as Patterson found Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 35-yard score that put Michigan up 14-7.
Suddenly the Wolverines had the momentum.
Before the half, SMU worked the ball down the Michigan 35, but Ben Hicks forced a throw on the last play of the half, and Wolverines defensive back Josh Metellus returned it 73 yards for a score, putting Michigan up 21-7 at the break.
“That killed us,” Dykes said. “We had a chance to kick a field goal and go up 14-10 at halftime. Instead we go down 21-7. That was discouraging.”
Up until the interception, Hicks was playing his best half of football this year. He was seven of 11 for 113 yards and a score in the games first segment, but SMU’s offense. Despite this, Hicks was on the sideline when the Mustangs came out for their first drive of the second half. The interception was the reason why.
“I just felt like that was three consecutive games where we’d given up defensive touchdowns at that positon,” Dykes said. “We just felt like we needed to make a change.”
Will Brown, in for Ben Hicks, led SMU’s once-dormant offense to 13 second-half points against a good Michigan defense. Brown’s stats weren’t all that pretty – he had just 82 yards on 11 of 17 passing, but he provided a much-needed spark to the offense. Still, that wasn’t enough for SMU to overcome Michigan’s big lead, which at one point reached 21 points. Still, Dykes was impressed by what he saw in Brown.
“He was prepared, he was ready and he was capable,” Dykes said. “We made the switch and thought he performed pretty well for us.”
But the fact that Brown performed well Saturday may not guarantee him a start against Navy next week.
“We’re going to start whoever we think gives us the best chance to win,” Dykes said. “That’s what we do around here. I owe it to our players and our fans to play our best players and the guys that give us the best chance to win the football game.”