HOUSTON – It was a deceiving night for the SMU defense.
The 56 points the Mustangs gave up should almost have an asterisk next to it. The points count the same, of course, but six of them came on an interception return. Two other touchdowns came on one-play drives of eight yards or less following two other SMU turnovers that swung the game in Rice's favor in the third quarter.
Take those 21 points off the board, and it's a one-touchdown ball game. Rice returned the three picks for 111 yards. A reach? Perhaps. But then add in the three interceptions SMU didn't make, including two in which the defender was in position to go untouched into the end zone, and it's a different game entirely.
"We didn't play any phase of our game very well," SMU head coach June Jones said. "We had chances to make plays. The (interception) that hit us in the chest is tough to let go. Good football teams that play with confidence make those plays. Anytime you give the opponent 2-yard drives, it's tough to overcome."
SMU defensive coordinator Tom Mason also noted the Mustangs' inability to come up with a big play (although they did recover two fumbles on kick returns). But the defense isn't totally set yet, either, he said.
"We're still trying to find out who the top players are and where they best suit our defense," Mason said. "Our guys executed well tonight, but we couldn't get our zone pressure on them. They had the answers to what we were doing."
Rice rang up 466 total yards, 258 of it through the air on quarterback Chase Clement's 24 completions. Clement tied a Conference USA record with six touchdown passes, but was just as dangerous on the ground. He ran for 87 yards, and actually topped 100 yards (109) before deducting 22 yards on sacks by SMU.
"(Rice head coach) David (Bailiff) has done a good job of getting a lot of speed on the field," Jones said. "Their quarterback (Clement) must run a 4.5 (40-yard dash)."
So there's still plenty of tweaking to be done on SMU's defense, which stopped Rice on its first two third down plays but then gave up 10 conversions among the next 14 third-down plays. Third-down conversion defense was a trouble spot for the Mustangs last year.
SMU's defense also didn't generate a turnover.
"(Clement) killed us with his feet," Mason said. "We knew he was fast. He looked faster in person. "There's usually a lot of growth that takes place between the first and second games," he added. "The kids were pressing a little tonight. We had the opportunities to make big plays, but didn't. That's part of the process, and comes with growth and learning."
SMU's defense ranked 116th in the nation last year. It will improve as the season progresses, but following the first week it's doubtful it will have improved any on that ranking.