‘We found a way to win.’ That’s progress for SMU, despite sloppiness vs. Liberty

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SMU defensive end Michael Badejo (7) and linebacker Jackson Mitchell (44) line up for a play against Liberty on Sept. 17, 2016. Photo credit: Mollie Mayfield

Let’s make one thing clear: SMU was impressively sloppy Saturday’s win vs. Liberty. Ben Hicks threw two more interceptions in the end zone. Josh Williams missed a 30-yard field goal. SMU muffed an extra point. SMU’s streak of consecutive possessions inside an opponent’s 15-yard line without a touchdown reached 12.

At times SMU seemed like it wanted to hand the game over to Liberty. At other times, Liberty wanted to hand it to SMU. Liberty quarterbacks tossed 4 interceptions and committed an ineligible man downfield penalty that negated a touchdown. We may not see a stranger, sloppier game all season. We definitely won’t see a team with a worse red zone streak this year.

SMU played sloppily enough to lose. The odds of winning while scoring zero touchdowns in six red zone trips are pretty low. But SMU still won.

A season ago, SMU probably doesn’t win. The Mustangs porous defense would have allowed a touchdown when Liberty took over with 47 seconds left trailing 22-14. They would have missed the field goal that gave them that 8-point lead. Instead of sealing a win, SMU would have given it away.

“It was so good to see us come away with a win and find a way to win,” SMU head coach Chad Morris said. “A year ago, our guys didn’t know how to win and were figuring out how to win. We would somehow make mistakes at inopportune times to be able to win a game or pull a game out. Tonight was a chance for us to flip the script.”

Last year’s FCS visitor to Ford Stadium, James Madison, scored a go-ahead touchdown with 27 seconds left on the drive after SMU took the lead. Eight plays, 75 yards, 97 seconds, no negative plays, no third downs. SMU may as well not have fielded a defense.

Liberty’s last possession was a stark opposite. Justin Lawler recorded a sack on the first play, and Jordan Wyatt returned an interception for a touchdown on the second. Script flipped. No easy game-winning score.

It’s frustrating to fans that the progress the defense has made comes with regression on offense. Frustration over repeated failed red zone drives is warranted. So is frustration over Hicks, the first big recruiting win for Morris at SMU, who has struggled with accuracy and turnovers. But frustration also clouds the progress made in other areas.

SMU’s defense can finally force turnovers, prevent receivers from running free and put some resemblance of a pass rush on quarterbacks. Through three games, SMU has already intercepted nine passes. It had 10 all of last season. SMU’s offense finally has more than one reliable receiver. Last year’s second-leading receiver behind Courtland Sutton had 258 yards. James Proche has 206 already.

It’s fair to say SMU’s defense won the game on Saturday. The defense that just a year ago gave up 45 points per game, surrendered 7 touchdown passes in one half and allowed at least 50 points five times. Don’t think Saturday’s results means anything because Liberty is an FCS team? So was James Madison, which hung 729 yards on SMU.

“I’m extremely proud of where we are defensively,” Morris said. “Those guys are playing really well.”

SMU’s defense won a game and SMU won a game in which it could have justifiably lost. That’s progress that can’t be ignored for a team that’s being built from literal scratch.

“We’re 1-0 tonight and 2-1 on the year,” Morris said. “That’s a whole heck of a lot better than it was a year ago.”

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