The SMU Mustangs haven’t been tested much in AAC play. They entered Saturday with a 6-0 record against conference competition, holding a lead for all 180 minutes of second half action in such contests.
But Rhett Lashlee and the Mustangs understood a late-season road trip to Memphis would be their toughest test of the regular season slate. The Tigers won 20 of their 25 home games under head coach Ryan Silverfield, only slipping up to Tulane at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium this season. While Memphis certainly lived up to status as SMU’s greatest AAC competition to date, the Mustangs continued their rampage through the conference, claiming a 38-34 victory.
Memphis is now the only team currently sporting a winning record that SMU defeated in 2023 — a more than welcome addition to the Mustangs’ season résumé. Although the game was tied at points in the second half, SMU never trailed in the final 30 minutes of action — keeping that impressive streak in tact as the conference finale approaches Saturday.
Prior to Saturday, SMU wielded the nation’s seventh-ranked scoring offense and ninth-ranked scoring defense. Both of those elements went immediately to work against Memphis, as the Mustangs immediately forced a fumble and produced 43-yard touchdown pass to tight end RJ Maryland within three minutes after kickoff. The Tigers responded to SMU’s early success to claim a 10-7 advantage, but a sustained 13-play, 70-yard drive prior to half handed the Mustangs a 14-10 lead that would never be completely relinquished.
In the second half, SMU utilized explosive playmaking to gain separation on the scoreboard. Quarterback Preston Stone completed six of his seven 20+ yard passes in the second half, finishing with an impressive average of 12.4 yards per attempt. Stone turned 15 completions into 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns, refraining from a turnover in an efficient offensive performance.
The always-balanced SMU offense received ample assistance from the running game which was headlined by LJ Johnson Jr. He notched his second consecutive 100-yard game and his third of the season, totaling 115 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. The rushing department was one area SMU gained significant ground over Memphis, as the Tigers registered just 62 yards on 22 attempts — with only one sack factoring into that total.
Memphis’ offense provided many responses to SMU, however, relying on the arm of junior quarterback Seth Henigan. The third-year starter fired 51 passes for 402 yards and two touchdowns to register a season-high and the fifth 400-yard showing of his Tigers tenure. DeMeer Blankumsee and Roc Taylor were among the receivers benefitting from Henigan’s stellar outing as both wideouts surpassed 100 yards on at least eight catches in the offensive showdown.
The Tigers tied the game at 28 apiece using the ground though, as running back Blake Watson flew in for an 11-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter. But SMU gained an edge afterward, chipping in the game’s only field goal to establish a 31-28 lead with 12:25 left and forcing consecutive punts. One of those punts happened after a critical ineligible downfield penalty was assessed to Memphis on a reception by Koby Drake that would have otherwise positioned the Tigers at the SMU 30-yard line.
SMU capitalized on that game-changing call, establishing a 10-point lead on the possession resulting from that punt. The Mustangs fed Johnson to maneuver downfield and then finished with a touchdown strike to Jordan Hudson to all but lock up the game with 2:41 remaining. While Memphis answered with a late touchdown, the Tigers were unable to pounce on the onside kick — handing SMU a 38-34 victory in the programs’ final meeting as AAC opponents.
Memphis (8-3, 5-2 AAC) was officially eliminated from AAC Championship Game contention with the defeat. The Tigers have yet to lose by more than one score this year, dropping close ones to Missouri, Tulane, and SMU. Memphis closes its season on the road at Temple, hoping to secure its first 9-win campaign since 2019.
SMU (9-2, 7-0 AAC) remains in the AAC Championship Game picture. With a win over Navy next Saturday, the Mustangs qualify for the event for their first and only time ever, as the program departs for the ACC this offseason. SMU can host the title game as well, but that scenario likely involves Tulane losing to UTSA next Friday.