Win vs. Houston is the big step SMU built toward

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Photo credit: Chris Coyne

The visor left Chad Morris’ hand and went up into the air for some fans to fight over, a chance for the ultimate souvenir from SMU’s first home win against a ranked team in 11 years.

Morris, surrounded by students in the middle of the field at Ford Stadium, let out a victorious shout. The fans around him chanted “S-M-U,” a chorus only reserved for Moody Coliseum the past few years. Once he finished taking pictures with fans and recruits, he went to SMU’s locker room to continue the celebration.

Quarterback Ben Hicks took a break from the pictures, handshakes and emotion to give his parents a hug. The same player who was flagged for taunting after Braeden West’s 10-yard touchdown run with 3:50 left found a minute for some quiet.

Fifteen days earlier, the scene was the opposite. After an overtime loss at Tulsa, players were crying. Morris called it as hurt a locker room he’s seen in in his coaching career. A week before that, he was calling out players in team film session after a 45-20 loss to Temple, possibly SMU’s worst game of the season. SMU had reached a pivotal point in its season.

“If we could all respond the right way, great things will happen,” Morris said.

Respond, they did. SMU took a 21-0 lead with the help of two early Houston fumbles and beat the 11th-ranked Cougars 38-16. A team picked to finish fifth in its division dominated the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference.

“This might have shocked the country, but it didn’t shock those guys,” Morris said. “This is something that we’ve been working toward. This has been a building process.”

It’s not a total surprise to Hicks either.

“Even though we got beat at Tulsa, we took strides,” he said. “Taking an team to overtime and feeling like we were so close, we took a stride.”

SMU has built from giving up 56 points in its first game under Morris, from giving up 729 yards to an FCS team, from a 63-0 loss to close last season and from the Temple loss. But it’s easy to find progress on an individual level as well.

In March, Jarvis Pruitt was one of a few seniors Morris called out on the first day of spring practice. He told him it was his time and his last chance to make an impact at SMU. Saturday, he notched three of SMU’s seven sacks.

“He said in a senior meeting and said, ‘We don’t have to do anything fancy, we just have to go play,” Morris said. “That’s what he did tonight.”

Morris challenged Pruitt’s classmate, defensive tackle Zelt Minor, as much as anyone else in the spring. He asked Minor a simple question: What will you do to live up to your status as a highly recruited player out of high school? Now, Morris calls him as consistent a player as anyone on the team. SMU’s offensive line, which played its worst game of the season vs. Temple, hasn’t allowed a sack since. Hicks, who threw nine interceptions in his first four starts, has thrown none in his last two.

“You’re seeing a group of guys come together,” Morris said. “You’re seeing a program take it’s next step.”

What’s next for SMU? Hicks says the goal is to get to a bowl game. Morris says SMU will come into meetings tomorrow and start preparing for next week, the same schedule as usual. First, though, they’ll enjoy the win.

“We’re going to turn the town red tonight,” Morris said.

While celebrating, maybe he’ll find the lucky fan that caught his visor.

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