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Recap: SMU staves off Houston comeback, retains unbeaten record in 34-31 finish

Xavier Jones rushes for 133 yards and leads SMU to tie its best win-total since the infamous death penalty.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 SMU at Houston Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It required withstanding a ferocious Houston comeback, but SMU’s dream season continues with an unblemished record. By escaping the Cougars’ den with a 34-31 victory, SMU (8-0, 4-0 American) matches its best win total since the infamous death penalty struck the program in the late 1980s.

SMU finished off the Cougars in a fitting way, sacking Houston quarterback Clayton Tune on what was set up to be a desperation heave to the end zone. The Mustang defense provided pressure in the backfield all game long, recording 7 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and pouncing on two Houston fumbles behind the line of scrimmage.

“We were fortunate to win,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said, relieved, after enduring the Thursday night showdown between the in-state rivals.

Despite the Mustangs’ win, Houston (3-5, 1-3 American) nearly constructed a bizarre comeback in the final minutes. SMU notched a field goal with under nine minutes remaining stretching its lead to 34-23. With 4:59 to go, the Cougars were positioned on their own 4-yard line, but SMU’s defense didn’t force a signature stop in the backfield.

Instead, Tune connected with the lightning fast Marquez Stevenson on a quick slant, and Stevenson raced to the house untouched. It wasn’t Stevenson’s first home run hit of the night. He similarly scored a 75-yard touchdown on a screen in the first minute of the fourth quarter. To follow the 96-yard sprint, Houston successfully completed a 2-point conversion to close the gap to three.

The Cougar defense, which was hampered with penalties and missed tackles all night, finally stepped up to the occasion and blanketed SMU’s receivers to force a monumental punt with over two minutes of clock left. The ball fell back into Houston’s hands, although the Cougars squandered the opportunity by failing convert on a 4th-and-4 around midfield. Tune couldn’t connect on a short out-route to Stevenson which caused a turnover on downs, but he earned another shot at the end — but it resulted in the sack on the Hail Mary attempt.

SMU struggled offensively in the second half with one touchdown scored, but the Mustangs rolled through the earlier parts of the game. Running back Xavier Jones dominated the first half with 111 rushing yards on 10 attempts. The fifth-leading rusher in all of college football created the lasting highlight of the evening, switching his direction in the backfield before juking a horde of four Houston defenders en route to a 62-yard touchdown run to break a 7-7 tie — his first of two touchdowns.

“I wouldn’t say I did anything different, but I focused on the small things,” Jones said on his 133-yard performance. “I focused on things that off the field I thought I wasn’t as focused. Just being hurt played a toll on me being at SMU. Just blessed to be healthy and to show everybody what I got. I always knew I had this in me, now it’s finally getting out.”

Jones’ second score followed an opportune turnover, the aspect of the game which allowed the Mustangs to pull ahead. SMU converted both of Houston’s lost fumbles into touchdowns. The first fumble, a whiff on a swing screen by Cougars’ quarterback/wide receiver hybrid Bryson Smith, led to an 11-yard play-action touchdown from SMU quarterback Shane Buechele to tight end Kylen Granson. The second fumble, a strip sack on Tune on the opening drive of the third quarter, positioned the Mustangs near the goal line — setting up the easier of Jones’ two touchdown runs.

“I saw him coming and tried to get out of the pocket,” Tune said regarding the fumble. “I tried to throw it away. He got to me too quick and he knocked the ball out. It was a bad play by me. I have to eat the sack and keep possession of the ball.”

Outside of Jones, SMU received a considerable boost from wide receiver James Proche. With wide receiver Reggie Roberson leaving the game due to injury, Proche caught seven of Buechele’s passes for 83 yards and hauled in the first score of the evening. On the Houston side, Stevenson shined with 211 receiving yards on five receptions (the first player with two 75-yard touchdowns in a game this season). The Cougars also excelled in the run game despite the backfield operating without Patrick Carr. Backup running back Mulbah Car drove the offense with 136 rushing yards, including a 44-yard run to set up a 1-yard score. Car and Stevenson’s big-play potential kept the Cougars in the fight and nearly pushed SMU to the brink at TDECU Stadium.

“We came into this knowing that Car was going to be our guy,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We practiced him all week, he’s had fresh legs, and he looked like it. He gave us a huge spark. We have to be selective on when we choose to play him. I think we’d all like to watch him play next year.”

SMU bent, but never broke. The Mustangs remain as one of 10 unbeatens in the FBS and the lone team chasing perfection in the AAC. Eyes fixated on the exclusive New Year’s Six Bowl, the Mustangs understand their greatest challenges lie ahead. Next up is a road game versus a potentially-ranked Memphis team, which exhibits one of the nation’s most explosive offenses and is vying for the same bowl destination as SMU.

Already matching its loss total from a season ago, Houston’s schedule doesn’t ease up anytime soon with a visit to UCF looming on Saturday, November 2. After facing the Knights, the Cougars’ remaining home schedule includes two 1-loss foes in Memphis and Navy.

“It sucks that we’re 3-5 with five close losses to five really good teams,” Holgorsen said. “We have to stay the course and I have no reason to believe that we won’t. I hope we have enough bodies to finish the year, but I know whoever is out there will play hard and I’m proud of them for doing that.”

Perfection isn’t attainable by complacency, but after decades of struggle in Dallas, SMU is finally back to a winning culture. Thursday night’s survival in Houston proved that Dykes’ team finds ways to win and keep the zero in the loss column.

“We think about it and it’s cool, but every day we just want to get the win,” Jones said on the historic season. “Get the win each week and everything else will take care of itself. We are proud of what we are doing right now, making this big time run.”