Games 1 and 2 of the 2021 World Series took place within the confines of Houston earlier this week. And despite the series moving to Atlanta, the home runs were still flying in the nation’s fourth largest city when SMU and Houston stepped up to the plate.
The game-winning shot landed with 17 seconds remaining on the clock. Immediately after SMU knotted the score at 34 with 30 seconds remaining, the Mustangs lined up to kick to All-American return specialist Marcus Jones. Jones, who entered Saturday night with three special teams touchdowns on the year, put his remarkable abilities on display once again. The star raced out of the end zone and paved his own path from one end of the field to the other. Deafening noise from the crowd and sideline reverberated throughout TDECU Stadium as Jones handed the Cougars the clincher.
“I keep saying that he’s the best returner in the country, which he is, and was last year. That’s why he’s an All-American returner and he’s better this year,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said of Jones. “I think he’s getting to a point where I may say he’s the best returner ever. For him to do it both punt and kick, it’s unbelievable.”
Houston (7-1, 5-0 AAC) handed unbeaten, 19th-ranked SMU (7-1, 3-1 AAC) its first loss of the 2020 campaign in 44-37 shootout fashion. An impromptu, extended celebration transpired in the aftermath of the thriller where players, fans, coaches, and staff members all assembled together to paint a picture of exuberance and unadulterated joy on the field.
“It’s awesome. It’s why you play the game when you’re a little kid. You grow up playing the game and watching moments like this,” quarterback Clayton Tune said on the postgame festivities. “It’s awesome to live those moments and see everyone’s work come to fruition.”
Although settled via special teams, the offenses made a major imprint in the AAC shootout. Houston and SMU strung together big play after big play, combining for six 40+ yard passes and 844 yards in the offensive clinic. Prior to kickoff, the most passing yards Tune ever amassed in his career was 407 against SMU at TDECU Stadium in 2019. In the Mustangs’ first trip to Houston since, Tune reset his career-high by lighting up the SMU defense with 412 yards and four touchdowns, out-dueling Mustangs star quarterback Tanner Mordecai who chipped in 305 and three.
“I’m proud of him. It’s his first game throwing for 412 yards so I’m very proud of him,” wide receiver Nathaniel Dell said of Tune. “Dealing with the injuries he had to deal with, he overcame them and he came out here to play his best game.”
His preferred target, Dell, had himself a night too with a hat trick of touchdown receptions, complemented with a season-best 165 yards. The team’s leading receiver consistently burned one-on-one man coverage in the first half to piece together a performance weeks in the making.
“It was good to see him make explosive plays. He’s a really good underneath possession receiver. For as little as he is, he can get people turned around. He has great ball skills,” Holgorsen said. “It was good to see him get behind people because we have struggled with that. That was a pretty special game. He’s a little bitty dude that’s been fighting a shoulder injury so he’s been hampered for a couple weeks. This game meant a lot to him.”
Houston came out of the gate firing with its two largest pickups of the season. Prior to Saturday night, the Cougars’ longest play of the season spanned 47 yards. But on the opening possession, Tune fired a dart to Jeremy Singleton on a post route for a 55-yard gain. The Cougars quickly capitalized on the scoring opportunity with a touchdown strike to Dell for an early lead. On the ensuing offensive drive, Tune connected with Dell once again. He launched a 48-yard bomb to the trusted wideout — who was the furthest man downfield — to set Houston ahead 14-0.
“As far as the big plays, we knew we were gonna have them,” Tune said. “We knew the type of defense they ran and the way they play, you have to go over the top of them. It’s a matter of making those plays when they came and I was really happy with it.”
Tune sailed another deep pass in Dell’s direction for a 52-yard pickup to the 4-yard line in the second quarter. However, SMU’s pass rush stepped up near the goal line and prevented Houston’s offense from reaching the end zone. By holding the Cougars to a chip shot field goal, SMU’s defense provided the spark the Mustangs needed to ignite.
Tune wound up with four passes exceeding 40 yards, but home run plays weren’t limited to the Cougars. Facing a 17-0 hole, its largest deficit of the season, SMU responded through the arm of Mordecai. The Oklahoma transfer quarterback hit Jordan Kerley on a 43-yard fly pattern on the final play of the first quarter. One play after the defense forced a turnover on downs at midfield in the second quarter, Mordecai dumped it off to running back Tre Siggers for a 50-yard touchdown. SMU completed its early comeback with Mordecai’s third TD delivery of the half — a fourth down dish to Rashee Rice near the goal line to tie it at 20 apiece.
“That’s the best receiving corps in the league and one of the better ones in the country,” Holgorsen said about SMU’s group. “We covered people. You can sit there and talk about Marcus Jones again and the job that he did against (Danny) Gray. Gray is extremely talented. That’s an NFL wideout — now. He needs to come out now.”
Entering the break trailing 23-20, SMU didn’t waste any time to secure its first lead of the night. Bryan Massey fielded the third quarter kickoff 100 yards for his second kick return score of the season — in an almost identical play to Jones’ game-winner. The fireworks show continued in the quarter as SMU and Houston traded touchdowns until the 13:36 mark of the fourth, when the Cougars gained a 37-34 advantage. After Tune’s final touchdown of the night, the defenses took over and made their mark in crunch time.
Jones’ contributions weren’t limited to special teams. The owner of the game-winning touchdown also provided a critical defensive play in the game’s final frame. On an SMU 3rd and 11 from midfield, Jones jumped a route and picked off a pass at the Houston 39-yard line, adding his first takeaway to his 2021 Heisman Trophy résumé. It was the only interception of the contest and shattered SMU’s streak of three consecutive drives resulting in touchdowns.
“It was one of those situations where you always have to play within your technique,” Jones said. “The quarterback had an arm and the receivers were fast too. It was hard at times on deep balls to judge if he’s overthrowing him or underthrowing him, so it was one of those situations where you have to play within the scheme.”
Entering Saturday’s matchup, SMU statistically boasted the best offensive line in the country. In a pass-heavy offense, the Mustangs only faced two sacks in their first seven contests. But pitted against a Houston defense which produces sacks at the second highest rate in the nation, SMU’s total was doubled in the first half alone. The Cougars defense contributed three sacks in a victory primarily defined by the offenses.
Of Houston’s season-best 489 yards of offense, over 84 percent was generated from the passing attack. Struggles in the run game have been a recurring theme for Holgorsen’s squad this season and Saturday was no exception. Starting halfback Alton McCaskill left the game after fielding three handoffs due to injury and never returned. Overall, the Cougars averaged just two yards per carry against an unforgiving SMU front seven.
“Ta’Zhawn (Henry) came in and played his tail off,” Holgorsen said of the running back room’s performance. “McCaskill is talented. We all know that. He’s gonna be our bell cow moving forward... He was excited after the game because he’s a good kid and good teammate.”
As SMU’s seven game win streak officially concludes, Houston extends its own streak to seven. The Cougars are in the midst of their best stretch of winning since the tail end of the 2015 campaign combined with the beginning of 2016. Houston remains unbeaten in conference play and controls its own destiny for its first AAC Championship Game appearance since 2015.
“It’s gonna propel us forward,” Tune said. “Obviously this was a huge game and had huge implications. I think it’s going to give us confidence going forward and we’re just going to continue to get better and play better as we go.”