Most striking, of course, was Sterling Moore's flying Superman block of a Rice field goal attempt on the last play of the first half. Bryan McCann scooped up the ball on one bounce and deposited it in the end zone 74 yards later.
The play cemented the Mustangs' comeback from 13 points down, giving SMU a 21-20 lead at the break, a lead it never lost. On that game-changer, Rice was likely watching Margus "The Jolly Lean Giant" Hunt who'd already blocked an extra point, his fifth rejection of the season.
The 6-8, 267-pound Hunt blocked his sixth kick on a Rice field goal try early in the third quarter. Each of the blocks set a new season school record.
Then there was linebacker Youri Yenga, who sacked Rice's Nick Fanuzzi in the fourth quarter, resulting in a fumble recovered by SMU's Chase Kennemer at the Owls' 24. Five plays later, with SMU leading, 24-20, Shawnbrey McNeal scored his second touchdown of the day from nine yards out, the eventual game-winner.
"It wasn't pretty," said SMU coach June Jones, "but we've been not pretty and lost for a lot of years." Jones said he told his players before the game that the contest would come down to the final seconds. "They've got to understand that we're not that good right now," he said. "We're winning but we're not that good a football team."
The game indeed went to the wire with Rice, down three, running the Cal lateral-circus play as time expired. Kennemer ended it with his third fumble recovery of the day as the Mustangs pulled to within a game of bowl eligibility at 5-4.
Had Tulsa not soiled the bed against Houston - yakking up nine points in the game's final 21 seconds - SMU would be alone atop the West Division, instead of knotted with Houston at 4-1. The Coogs hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Speaking of Tulsa, unlike ‘Cane Dexter McCoil, SMU's Bradley Haynes expertly handled Rice's late on-side kick attempt after the Owls late touchdown and two-point conversion made thing sporty. The Mustangs then burned the clock down to 0:04 before the Owls got it back for the final play.
Jones said Rice didn't show any new offensive wrinkles, though SMU's defense gave that impression at times. "[Rice] played exactly the way they had played on film," Jones said "[Rice coach David Bailiff's] got to be proud of his team. They play hard. ... They had some bad luck, and I thought we had some bad luck too. But it evened out and it was sure fun to win versus losing."
SMU Director of Athletics Steve Orsini watched the finish from the sidelines. It was the Mustangs' first football win over Rice since Orsini's arrival in 2006. "It's great to beat Rice after four tries," he said. How about the finish? "I think they all will be that way," Orsini said. "But as long as we have one more point than the opponent, that's all it takes!"
Vic Viloria, SMU's strength coach and former Mustang all-conference linebacker, said this team is special. "I think the difference between the old SMU and this year's team is our kids never doubt each other. And it is a true family. We know a big play's going to happen. We know somebody's going to step up."
The Mustangs opened the game with a 10-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a McNeal 7-yard touchdown run. But before the first quarter ended, quarterback Kyle Padron was picked off in Rice's end zone and lost a fumble, flipping momentum to the Owls.
Rice led, 20-7, with five minutes left in the half. "When we got the ball back with a young quarterback," Jones said, "I just told the offense we have to score on this drive and get it to 20-14. So they took it right down and Kyle did a good job and hit Emmanuel [Sanders] for the touch."
The drive covered 78 yards in seven plays. Rice brought it right back down for a field goal attempt, setting up Moore's heroics.
Total yards mirrored the final score with SMU holding a slight 330-327 edge.
Rice had 23 first downs to SMU's 18 and the Owls had 16 more offensive plays. Fanuzzi (29-42 for 250 yards, three touchdowns) completed deep passes over the middle with ease, at times.
Jones said the defense must improve. "We just did not tackle and we did not look like ourselves today on defense," he said. "And we've got to turn it up if we're going to finish this thing off right."
Safety Rock Dennis was SMU's leading tackler with nine stops, eight unassisted. Sanders led Mustang receivers with six catches for 136 yards and one touchdown.
Pony Express Lite?
Jones' offense, now the Really Run and Shoot, ran the ball 34 times and passed it 24 against Rice. "I put a lot of the load in Shawnbrey's hands," Jones said, "and he rose up."
McNeal finished with 88 yards on 21 carries.
This is the third game in a row the Mustangs have run the ball more than thrown it. Before that, Jones hadn't rushed more than passed in a single game since his arrival at SMU.
So what's up? Padron's a true freshman, but true freshman Bo Levi Mitchell threw an average of 41 times a game, with 15.5 team rushes, in his first two starts last year.
As legendary sportswriter Blackie Sherrod used to intone, "it says here" the difference is Shawnbrey McNeal, the Mustangs' new lightning bolt running back out of Dallas Madison High via Miami.
McNeal averages 81 rushing yards per game, with five rushing touchdowns and 727 total yards. Last year, SMU averaged 41 yards per game, scored three rushing touchdowns and didn't have a 200-yard rusher.
Jones appears to be adjusting for McNeal's talent. McNeal's that good. And Padron, who steadily continues to impress, will only benefit. With solid defense and monster special teams plays, it could add up to a Perfect Bowl Storm.
Padron finished 17-24 passing for 234 yards on Saturday, with one touchdown and one pick. Jones called the performance "OK."
"He's just got to learn on the job, unfortunately. I thought he did a lot of good things but at the same time there are a lot of things he's going to look at that film and just shake his head."
Padron was sacked five times behind a line missing starters Mitch Enright and Bryce Tennison. "They did a pretty good job," Jones said. "I thought a lot of the sacks were the quarterback not really managing the offense yet. He'll get better and better and know where to go with the ball when he gets things quickly."
"While we're learning, we're going to take some sacks … and we've just got to figure out a way to overcome them."
SMU was flagged 13 times for 122 yards. "That's just not acceptable," Jones said. "Champions don't play that way. We don't make those stupid mistakes."
False starts and off-sides up front were due to inexperience, Jones said. "They were just antsy," he said. "That's what it looked like to me."
Sanders said he got a little antsy when SMU neared Rice's goal line with a chance to go up eleven in the fourth quarter. He had flashbacks to ‘06 when the Mustangs couldn't punch it in from close range at Rice.
"We came through and we scored [this time,]" Sanders said. "That right there let me know that we took a step up."
UTEP's Donald Buckram is the league's leading rusher, with 1,181 yards. He also leads C-USA in scoring with 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe's 239 passing yards per game rank No. 3 in C-USA behind Houston's Case Keenum and SMU's Mitchell.
Defensive back Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith leads C-USA in tackles per game (12). UTEP's rushing defense, 11 th in C-USA, allows 211 yards per game.
Prediction: McNeal gets loose - 28-20, SMU. The 25-year bowl drought is all but over.