It was not the bowl game SMU envisioned when it handled Tulane 26-14 in New Orleans for the 2023 AAC Championship, securing its first conference title since 1984.
But furthermore, it was not the finish SMU envisioned when the bowl matchups were set. In one of the more lopsided matchups of the postseason, the 11-2 Mustangs — in the midst of a dominant 9-game win streak — were definitive favorites over a 6-6 Boston College team that defeated one .500 or better team all season.
Yet, that’s why they play the game. Boston College not only defended its nearby stomping grounds in Boston at the second annual Fenway Bowl — it upended SMU by multiple scores, exiting with a 23-14 victory for its first bowl win since 2016.
SMU is accustomed to fast starts, registering an FBS-best 13.4 points per game in the first quarter. The inability to generate a spark in the early going doomed the Mustangs for the remainder of the game. SMU moved the ball well on its first possession until Boston College defensive end Donovan Ezeiruaku made a textbook strip while tackling SMU quarterback Kevin Jennings. The Mustangs’ offense stalled on its ensuing possessions and faced a first quarter shutout for the first time since November 2022.
Rhett Lashlee’s team rolled into the Fenway Bowl with nearly its entire cast of major contributors, but one major piece was missing. All-AAC quarterback Preston Stone suffered a broken fibula in the regular season finale, thrusting Jennings into the lineup. While Jennings led SMU to a conference title in his first start, the offense — ranked sixth in points per game — didn’t produce its typical output without Stone in the lineup, falling 157 yards below its season average.
SMU delivered two first half touchdowns, including one in the final 10 seconds of the half to produce a 14-10 halftime lead. The Mustangs typically thrived in second halves this season — refusing to trail for a single second in a third or fourth quarter since their Week 4 matchup at TCU. But SMU was completely shut out in the second half. The turning point occurred on a third quarter drive when clinging onto a 14-10 advantage. Jennings launched a beautiful deep ball to an open Key’Shawn Smith in the end zone, but the receiver was unable to corral the pigskin. The drive ended in a field goal attempt, and Boston College blocked it.
The Eagles capitalized on the special teams momentum swing, responding with a touchdown drive to open the fourth quarter. After an ambitious SMU 4th and 3 attempt from its own 42-yard line, Boston College took over and extended the lead to 23-14 on a 14-yard scramble by electrifying mobile quarterback Thomas Castellanos.
Castellanos, the offensive MVP of the game, made life difficult for SMU’s usually immovable defense. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the season with a 156-yard outburst, scoring two touchdowns in the memorable performance. SMU’s defense, which was second in the FBS in sacks, only totaled one against the elusive quarterback, allowing Boston College to have manageable third down distances throughout the afternoon.
Running back Kye Robichaux added 89 yards and a touchdown, and the Eagles totaled 262 yards as a unit, boasting an average of 6.4 yards per carry. SMU only surrendered 3.2 yards per attempt in its first 13 games, exhibiting the nation’s 18th-best run defense, and the inability to sustain that excellence cost the Mustangs in a high-stakes game.
Offensively, SMU couldn’t produce the same success in the ground game against a Boston College defense which ranked 124th in stopping the run — allowing 5.4 yards per carry. The Mustangs never broke away for a run exceeding 14 yards and the passing offense finished 24-of-48.
SMU completes its 2023 campaign with an 11-3 standing which is still the Mustangs’ highest win percentage since the infamous “death penalty” punishment in 1987. The fate of the AAC champions’ season belongs in the hands of AP voters, as they hope to remain in the final AP Poll for the first time since finishing No. 8 in 1984. Now that the Fenway Bowl is over, it’s time to remove the AAC signage from SMU’s uniforms, stadium, and facilities as the Mustangs prepare their highly-anticipated transition to the ACC in 2024.
Prior to the Fenway Bowl, Boston College was 1-27 against its last 28 ranked opponents in the AP Poll. But by outlasting No. 17 SMU, the Eagles recorded their second ranked victory since 2014 — capping the 2023 season with the program’s most important win in over a decade to finish 7-6. Year five of the Jeff Hafley era launches next fall with more momentum than ever, and his Boston College team gets a rematch with SMU in Dallas next fall... as geographically-distant conference opponents in the ACC.