The SMU Mustangs were obliterating everything in their path. SMU tossed Tulsa 69-10 last Saturday and demolished Temple 55-0 the week prior. They won each of their first four AAC games by at least 18 points, tied atop the league standings and positioned perfectly on a pathway to their first-ever AAC Championship appearance.
The Rice Owls were the stiffest competition on SMU’s conference schedule so far. That was proven by record and supported by the happenings on the gridiron Saturday night. Rice provided challenges the Mustangs hadn’t seen since battling Big 12 opponents in September, but in the end, SMU prevailed. Strong safety Isaiah Nwokobia intercepted a Rice deep shot with 67 seconds left in the night to secure a 36-31 victory — keeping SMU unscathed in league play.
The in-state matchup between two AAC Texas teams drew significant anticipation due to the highly-touted quarterbacks on each sideline. Rice brought journeyman JT Daniels to the table, entering Saturday as the conference’s leader in passing yards in his first year with the Owls. SMU countered with Preston Stone, the team’s highest-rated recruit in history, fresh off shattering his career-high with 371 yards last week.
Unfortunately for both squads, neither quarterback finished the contest due to injuries.
Daniels exited first in the final minute before halftime. The sixth-year senior absorbed contact to the head on a hit by SMU outside linebacker Ahmad Walker. While the play was reviewed for targeting, the penalty was ultimately not assessed and Walker remained in the game. Two plays later, Daniels fired a 14-yard touchdown strike to running back Dean Connors to slice the deficit to 24-21.
“What was told to me was, yes, he finished the drive, but he didn’t remember the drive or the score,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said.
That touchdown pass was Daniels’ final play of the night. The AAC’s leading passer was evaluated for concussion-like symptoms at halftime and didn’t return from the locker room until around the 10-minute mark of the third quarter. At that point, Daniels walked to the sideline without his helmet and was ruled out for the remainder of the night, and true freshman Chase Jenkins was thrust into the lineup.
“Coming out of halftime, I heard JT wasn’t coming out,” Jenkins said. “I root for him all the time and learn so much just being in a room with him. It hurts seeing him go down, especially somebody who’s going to battle for our team. After that, I was just ready to do what coach called.”
Prior to Saturday, Jenkins only threw two collegiate passes but he was required to quickly acclimate to the game against the No. 5 scoring defense in the country. With Daniels giving pointers on the sidelines, Jenkins kept the offense afloat by leading two scoring drives and finishing 10-of-16 with 85 yards. He kept Rice in striking distance until his lone interception with 1:07 to go on a deep shot.
“SMU’s a great team... you saw that watching film going in, but I’m just appreciative of my teammates — o-line, receivers, everybody embracing me — especially being a young freshman getting in at halftime,” Jenkins said. “I’m just thankful of my coaches for putting me in good situations. It hurts when you’re one play away. I wish we could have won that game. I just look forward to making that one play going forward.”
Then with roughly 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, SMU suffered a similar fortune. Stone scrambled toward the sticks on a third down but fell short, taking a brutal hit along the way. The redshirt sophomore was shaken up and ran to the locker room following the ensuing punt. He ran back to the sideline with roughly three minutes remaining, and similarly to Daniels, he exited the locker room without possession of his helmet.
Stone’s replacement was redshirt freshman Kevin Jennings, who saw a substantial amount of snaps in SMU’s prior two blowouts. Jennings only captained one offensive drive besides victory formation, and the result was points. He completed 4-of-6 passes for 37 yards to keep the sticks moving, and kicker Collin Rogers took care of the rest. Rogers’ 51-yard field goal with 2:49 remaining cushioned SMU’s advantage to 36-31, mandating a touchdown for the Owls.
Instead, Rice was picked by Isaiah Nwokobia on a deep shot attempt by Jenkins, sealing SMU’s fifth-straight victory and its first one-score win of 2023.
Before the quarterback injuries put a damper on things, the eventful game commenced with an off-the-rails first quarter. SMU unleashed a fake punt on the opening drive, but Ryan Bujcevski airmailed an incompletion on the ambitious attempt. The Mustangs’ punting woes continued into their next possession when Rice safety Peyton Stevenson blocked a punt and the ball was scooped up by Chike Anigbogu for the first Owls’ touchdown off a blocked punt since 2012. Additionally, tremendous execution by Rice’s defense and special teams handed SMU its first deficit in 246 minutes and four seconds of action and its first deficit in AAC play this season.
“Coming in, as a defense, we never go into any game thinking we can’t play with them,” Rice cornerback Sean Fresch said. “First quarter, we settled in and got back to being us at the defensive end. We rely on that confidence and playing our way, playing our game and playing with our swagger. I think SMU’s offense hasn’t played a defense like ours and hasn’t really been in a dogfight like that. Once they saw they were in that, we fed off of that.”
SMU hurdled that obstacle in instantaneous fashion. Led by an explosive offense which dropped 124 points in the prior two weeks, the Mustangs started stringing together explosive plays. Stone connected with Roderick Daniels Jr. in the back of the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown. Four offensive snaps later, SMU secured a 14-7 lead on a 20-yard keeper by Stone. The Mustangs’ second touchdown in a 35-second span was assisted by middle linebacker Kobe Wilson, who caught an interception off a deflected pass for the first turnover of the night.
At the end of the first quarter, SMU out-gained Rice in the yardage department, 204 to -1. But the Owls kick-started their offense before Daniels’ exit. The starter finished with 81 yards and two first half touchdowns before exiting — one to Luke McCaffrey and another to Connors. Once Jenkins checked in, the offense heavily relied on running back Dean Connors, who totaled 77 rushing yards, 33 receiving yards, and two total touchdowns, appearing to be the fastest man on the field.
“He was fabulous,” Bloomgren said. “He was just battling all night long and he’s become our short-yardage and goal line back with Daelen (Alexander) being down and I just trust him completely with everything.”
In the first minute of the fourth quarter, immediately after a momentum-swinging fumble recovery, Connors turned a screen into a 55-yard into a go-ahead touchdown, but the celebratory moment for the home team was negated due to a holding penalty — the most crucial of Rice’s season-high 10 flags.
“I never felt the way I felt tonight since I coached high school in some small town,” Bloomgren said on the penalties, which were worth 120 yards.
Just like Rice, the majority of SMU’s scoring was completed in the first half. Pitted against a Rice defense which lost star safety Gabe Taylor in the second quarter, the Mustangs only notched one second half touchdown. That score transpired at the 9:32 mark of the third quarter when Tyler Lavine hit paydirt on a 3-yard run. It was a productive day for SMU on the ground as the team totaled 223 rushing yards led by Stone’s 81. Overall, the Mustangs’ 15th-ranked total offense outclassed Rice, 484-290, in the victory.
Rice (4-5, 2-3 AAC) dropped its third consecutive home game after starting the year 3-0 at Rice Stadium. The Owls lost to conference juggernauts Tulane and SMU by a combined seven points, proving they can compete with anyone in the league. Next on the docket is UTSA, which will be Rice’s third-straight AAC opponent featuring a spotless conference record. While the status is not confirmed, the Owls may need to overcome additional adversity if Daniels cannot return to the field in seven days.
“I’m incredibly proud of them and how they fought in the second half of this ballgame,” Bloomgren said. “Through a lot of adversity, they gave themselves a chance to win against an incredibly talented football team. That’s something we never could have done in years past. We never would have been able to rally around a freshman quarterback and give him the chance to make some plays. That’s what I’m proud of.”
SMU (7-2, 5-0 AAC) survived its first close call of the year after earning each of its first six wins by at least 18 points of separation. The Mustangs are rolling with five-straight wins and they continue their farewell season in the conference next Friday when hosting North Texas. The status of Stone, who started all eight games this year, is undetermined for the time being.