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SMU, Mordecai get comfortable season-opening win, questions remain of what it all means going forward

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — Tanner Mordecai sat back and waited as the play developed down field. A pair of Abilene Christian defensive lineman were crashing down on him. But Mordecai’s eyes were watching Danny Gray slowly inch away from his defender.

And just as Gray found enough room in the back of the end zone 30 yards away, Mordecai lofted a soft, looping ball into his receiver’s hand. The handful of purple jerseys knocked Mordecai over, but the touchdown had already been completed.

It put SMU up 21-0 early in the second quarter, en route to a 56-9 season-opening win.

Beyond that, the Mordecai play, calm in the face of chaos, was emblematic of a comfortable start for SMU and its new quarterback. Mordecai, getting his first collegiate start, threw for 317 yards and seven touchdowns. The Oklahoma transfer broke the SMU record, and tied the American Athletic Conference record, for most touchdowns in a single game.

“I didn’t go in thinking this is all me, I’m going to show what’s been missing,” Mordecai said. “I just went in, head down, listened to what [offensive coordinator Garrett] Riley said and trusted him.”

In reality, the outcome of the game was never in doubt from the moment it was scheduled. ACU is a program that won just one game in 2020 and hasn’t had a winning season in the WAC since 2018. For a team like SMU, a contender in the AAC, the objective was less to win and more not to play down to the competition.

Most of the day, SMU did that. It put ACU away early — highlighted by the first drive where Mordecai orchestrated a one-minute, three-play touchdown series — and led the entire game.

Four different receivers caught touchdown passes. Gray caught two. Grant Calcaterra also caught a pair in his SMU debut after retiring from football in 2019.

Following Calcaterra’s second touchdown catch in the second quarter, a fade in the right side of the end zone that put SMU up 14-0, the Oklahoma transfer took off his helmet on the bench and breathed a large sigh of relief. It was a weight off his shoulders. He hadn’t scored in over 1,000 days.

“He played like we expected him to,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “He made some plays. He hadn’t played football in awhile and he will do nothing but get more comfortable and get better.”

That was largely the feeling from everyone on the SMU’s roster of gaining a level of comfort. Backups came in and played well. Players coming back from injury did the same.

Nolan Matthews, the Arizona State transfer and second-string tight end, had two touchdowns and 50 yards receiving. Reggie Roberson Jr.,in his first game back after a season-ending knee injury last year, had three catches for 59 yards.

Notably, freshman quarterback Preston Stone did not play after the starters were pulled at the end of the third quarter. Derek Green, a senior, instead played.

“We just wanted [Stone] to have meaningful reps,” Dykes said. “If he is going to play in four games [to maintain his redshirt status] we wanted them to be meaningful. Tonight, by the time we were ready to make a change at [quarterback], it wasn’t quite what where we wanted it to be.”

The main question is how much of SMU’s performance was by virtue of playing ACU and how much of it can be transferred to the rest of the schedule.

After all, it is not that sustainable to out gain an opponent 490-332. It is also not a reliable measure to hold an offense to 5 of 16 on third down.

The defense created four turnovers.

“I think you can [still] evaluate a lot. At the end of the day you evaluate two things: effort and whether somebody is doing their job,” Dykes said. “There were times when guys had to make some competitive plays on the ball and we did. I was encouraged by that.”

For now, that is what SMU will hang its hat on. Only time will tell what can be gleaned from the season-opener. But, until next week, it will be content with a strong debut from Mordecai and a game where SMU did exact what it was supposed.

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