HOUSTON – The June Jones era at SMU officially started with Bo Levi Mitchell's 40-yard bomb to Aldrick Robinson. The throw was on the money, but Rice safety Andrew Sendejo knocked it away at the last second.
It was a night of near-misses Friday – the Mustangs missed a point-after kick, dropped three interceptions that might have been returned for touchdowns, and several usually dependable Mustang receivers dropped third-down throws that would have extended drives.
Any one of those plays might have turned the game in SMU's direction after it gave up a 13-0 first-quarter lead. They certainly stand in contrast to the plays Rice made in its 56-27 win in both teams' season-opener at Rice Stadium.
Rice went on a 56-7 tear after SMU's strong start. The Mustangs, who lost their opener for an eighth-straight season, never found an answer for Rice quarterback Chase Clement, who finished with 258 passing yards and a Conference USA record-tying six touchdowns.
Particularly frustrating were Mitchell's three interceptions, one of which Sendejo returned for a touchdown. The other two set up short fields that Rice converted into touchdowns. The true freshman's three picks, contrasted by the two sure interceptions SMU didn't make and another that was dropped, spelled the difference in the game.
"The one that hit us in the chest is tough to let go," Jones said. "Good football teams that play with confidence make those plays. Anytime you give the opponent 2-yard drives, it's tough to overcome."
SMU was within 28-20 one minute into the third quarter after recovering a fumble on the second-half kickoff return. Mitchell hit Aldrick Robinson on a crossing pattern for a 22-yard touchdown. But Clement struck back as Rice scored touchdowns on its next four possessions.
"We executed well, but couldn't get our zone pressure on them," SMU defensive coordinator Tom Mason said. "They had answers to what we were doing. There's always a lot of growth from the first game to the second. The players were pressing a bit tonight. You could see it in that we had the opportunities to make big plays and didn't. That's part of the process, and comes with growth and learning."
Mitchell's play, despite the three interceptions, can still be considered a bright spot. He completed 25-of-43 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns. His first touchdown toss was his longest completion of the night, a 26-yarder to Robinson in the first quarter. Neither SMU quarterback (Logan Turner played sparingly in the second half) was able to go deep against Rice. Turner's 32-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders that closed SMU's scoring was the Mustangs' longest completion of the night despite several attempts to go deep in the vertical passing game.
"(Mitchell) did some good things, but he had some unfortunate things happen, too," Jones said. "He'll get better. I like his confidence. We just have to get better around him while he's still learning."
Robinson, in his first career start, finished with seven catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders closed with eight grabs for 121 yards and a touchdown, his fifth career 100-yard game.
Call it a bright spot with a big stretch, but Jones also lost his debut game at Hawaii, 62-7. Granted, it was to USC, not to Rice, but Jones then led the Warriors to wins the next four weeks.
"It's frustrating to lose, but because it's your first loss you want to come out next week and play better," Jones said. "We have to coach better, play better and go back to the drawing board."
Regardless, better temper those expectations a bit for SMU's seasons based on the opener. There's still plenty of work ahead for the Mustangs. But next week's game offers a beatable opponent, Texas State, to exercise it on.