UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – Last week, Shane Buechele walked into the locker room at the half with the dazed look of confusion on his face.
In a one possession game against Cincinnati, driving with under two minutes left in the first half, Buechele lost track of time and 15 seconds conspicuously ticked off the clock. SMU never got a chance at the end zone. It also never got back into the game.
This week at the intermission, Buechele came off the field locking his helmet against Rashee Rice’s and pointing toward Chris Naggar. SMU used the last one minute, 14 seconds of the first half to compile 10 points. It took two timeouts and had three shots at the end zone, converting on the third with a Rice touchdown.
A one possession game this time morphed into a 31-17 SMU advantage, en route to polishing off a 51-37 SMU win.
“You know traditionally, I think we have been pretty good with time management. This was a good way to end the first half,” head coach Sonny Dykes said.
“I thought for a while, that was as well as we’ve played at any point this season. I really felt like, after the first two series, we played about as well as I’ve seen anybody play against them defensively, until the end,” he said.
The sharp execution to end the half was indicative of SMU’s most complete performance of the season.
The Navy defense, which has struggled all season to keep the Midshipmen in games, wore down as the game went on. Outside of an opening stop, SMU scored on eight-straight drives from the end of the first quarter to the start of the fourth quarter. It was part of a 38-3 run. In the second quarter alone, SMU poured in 31 points.
By the time the fourth quarter started, a competitive night had turned into a blowout. SMU pulled its starters by the 12-minute mark in the fourth.
Ulysses Bentley IV found gaping holes in the running game, breaking off four carries of 15 yards or more. None was bigger than a 18-yard touchdown that gave SMU its first lead of the game; one it would never relent. Bentley finished with 149 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns.
Bentley’s day was part of an SMU rushing attack that, for the first time since 1998, out-gained a triple-option team on the ground.
“We knew coming into this week playing Navy, they’re a pretty hard defensive team,” Bentley IV said. “So we were just focusing on that. Running hard.”
Navy had a chance on its opening possession of the third quarter to come within single digits. Devin Mathews had shaken loose down the sideline with no blue jerseys in front of him. As he looked upfield, the sophomore tripped over his own teammate and wiped away a would-be touchdown.
Navy punted three plays later. It was a commentary for the entire game.
SMU largely dictated terms even as it played down two of its most explosive receivers. Before the game, Danny Gray was absent from warmups as the wrist injury lingered from last Saturday. Reggie Roberson Jr., who underwent season-ending surgery two weeks ago, was unavailable.
In their hiatus, though, SMU regained the image of an offensively explosive team. A unit that limped to a 13-point effort against Cincinnati responded with half a century mark this game.
Buechele mainly relied on the only two trusted wide receivers left on the roster. The combination of Rice and Tyler Page crept over 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Rice put the finishing touches on SMU’s sixth win of the season with a fading away catch in the back of the end zone.
Buechele finished with 23-of-28 for 300 yards and three touchdowns. It was his best outing of the season, according to Dykes.
“We knew this was a big game for us,” Richard McBride said. “We knew we needed to win (with everything over the last week).”
In a situation where SMU controls its own path to a conference championship game if it wins out, this was a must win. Beyond that, however, it was more a game of seeing how SMU would respond to its second consecutive defeat to its highest ranked opponent.
Last season, a Memphis loss derailed SMU’s final month of the year. Now, the preliminary answer at least to how SMU would respond in 2020 to a Cincinnati loss, was more positive
“It’s always good to see the guys respond like you hope they will,” Dykes said. “And they did. And we had a good week of practice. And preparation was good. And, like anything else, I think we learned some lessons from last week.”