Senior Emmanuel Sanders (17) caught six passes for 144 yards (SMU Athletics)
“All Grit, No Quit,” the motto for the 2009 SMU Mustangs, has multiple connotations.
Saturday, it meant holding off the Tulane Green Wave for 26-21 victory at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
The five-point victory gave the 7-5 Mustangs their largest single-season improvement in history. SMU’s six-game turnaround was also the nation’s largest in 2009.
The victory assured the Mustangs of their first bowl bid since their 1984 Aloha Bowl victory over Notre Dame. SMU will most likely return to the Aloha State for the Hawaii Bowl December 24th.
“All Grit, No Quit” meant the most to SMU’s 12 seniors, who endured consecutive 1-11 seasons before emerging with the Mustangs’ first winning record since 1997. Josh Bryant, Tim Crosby, Kellis Cunningham, Rock Dennis, Mitch Enright, Bryce Hudman, Chase Kennemer, Bryan McCann, A’Darius Medford, Chris Parham, Emmanuel Sanders and Zach Zimmerman were honored with the Senior Walk following the game.
Although the Mustangs were 17-point favorites, Saturday’s victory over 3-9 Tulane – like so many other games this season – had SMU fans gritting their teeth until the very end.
Shawnbrey McNeal, whose 147 yards pushed him over 1,000 yards for the season, opened the scoring with a two-yard run on SMU’s first drive. Tulane came right back with a 13-play, 68-yard drive to tie it. A 31-yard field goal by Matt Szymanski and a nine-yard touchdown run by Zach Line in the second quarter gave the Mustangs a 17-7 halftime advantage.
Tulane, which deferred to the second half after winning the coin toss, came back strong in the third quarter. Jeremy Williams returned the second-half kickoff 39 yards to give the Green Wave excellent field position. Two plays later, Williams was in the end zone celebrating a 46-yard touchdown reception from Ryan Griffin.
After SMU’s next visit to the red zone resulted in a 37-yard Szymanski field goal, Tulane stunned the partisan crowd with an eight-play, 59-yard drive that put the Green Wave up 21-20 with 10:06 remaining.
From there, Kyle Padron – starting just his fifth college game – led SMU on its game-winning drive. After completing two of three passes for 25 yards running for two more, the freshman quarterback from Southlake Carroll handed the ball to McNeal on five consecutive plays. The 5-10, 190-pound back who became eligible one day before the season started, ran for 37 yards before slicing through a pair of Tulane tacklers on his four-yard touchdown run. Margus Hunt, who set an SMU record with seven blocked kicks this season, was unable to handle Padron’s pass on the two-point conversion, so Tulane had 5:23 to erase the five-point margin.
Fortunately for SMU, a wave of mental mistakes kept Tulane from progressing past midfield. Williams, who had been so explosive on the Green Wave’s first drive of the half, fielded Szymanski’s kickoff at the one-yard line. Thinking he was in the end zone, the senior from Baytown Sterling started dropping to one knee before a teammate signaled that he was in the field of play. After Williams was stopped at the Tulane 10, the Green Wave moved the ball effectively only to have a pair of false starts and an offensive pass interference penalty end their drive.
Four runs by McNeal netted only nine yards and 1:10 on the clock, giving Tulane one more opportunity to pull out the unlikely victory. The Green Wave’s attempt at a hook-and-later play was foiled by Ja’Gared Davis, who forced receiver Casey Robottom to fumble as he tried to pitch to a passing teammate. Hunt recovered the ball, finally sealing the victory.