Everyone will point to the upset win over the Houston Cougars two weeks ago as a “program changing” victory, but for those who know football still wanted to see how the team would handle success. This season, the SMU Mustangs have shown glimpses of improvement but still did not know how to handle success. Wins over North Texas and Liberty were followed up by blowout losses to Baylor and TCU and despite the raised level in competition it had to be frustrating for the fans because the games weren’t even close.
Saturday on the road against the Tulane Green Wave, the Mustangs were presented with a great opportunity to show that the upset over the Houston Cougars was not a fluke but a catalyst for more success. 30 minutes into the game, it looked as if SMU was well on its way to back-to-back victories as it led 21-10 at halftime.
But after two consecutive drives ending in punts for both teams, the defense surrendered three consecutive touchdown drives. Three plays over 20 yards set the comeback in motion for the Green Wave – including a 67-yard run that led to one of the touchdowns — to make the score 31-21.
This is where things would normally fall apart for the Mustangs. In addition to the defensive lapses, the offense became stagnant and generated only two first downs in the first four drives out of the half.
No player steps on a field/court and automatically knows what it takes to win a game. Through repetition, winners develop the ability to overcome obstacles that would cripple even the most talented “loser.” In the past, a big play allowed on defense or an ill-timed offensive penalty would send the Mustangs into a tailspin but when faced with adversity the last two weeks, the team did not flinch. While head coach Chad Morris deserves a lot of credit, the recent success of the team is due in part to a defense that is making more plays and the maturation of quarterback Ben Hicks.
Houston’s all-conference quarterback Greg Ward Jr. had just connected on a two-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 28-14 and many college football fans who were shocked to see the deficit figured that this is where Houston would stage a comeback and eventually seize control of the game… but the comeback never materialized. The Mustangs’ defense sacked Ward Jr. a season-high seven times – led by senior defensive lineman Jarvis Pruitt’s three – and eventually closed the game out as it limited the high-powered Cougars offense to a season-low 303 total yards.
Hicks was thrust into action after starting quarterback Matt Davis was injured during the first game of the season. The first half of the season Hicks looked like a deer caught in the headlights as he struggled to progress through his reads and never seemed comfortable in the pocket. This discomfort led to seven interceptions and only two touchdowns and led many to wonder if Coach Morris had anyone else on the roster who could play quarterback.
Hicks’ growth took front stage in the three touchdown performance in the upset over Houston and against Tulane, he became a star. Rather than fold when faced with the 10-point deficit, Hicks engineered two of the best drives in his young career as he completed 8-of-12 passes for 154 yards.
What made the drives even more remarkable was his ability to convert third and long multiple times. Too often you see young quarterbacks become over-reliant on their primary receiver but Hicks took advantage of defenses shading coverage towards his favorite receiver Cortland Sutton and connected with James Proche (six catches for 164 yards), Xavier Castille (three catches for 57 yards), and Shelby Walker (one catch for 27 yards) during the pivotal drives on his way to passing for 302 yards for the game.
The 35-31 win over Tulane evened the Mustangs record at 4-4 on the season and with four games remaining on the schedule, a post-season bowl is well within reach for a team that seems to have finally learned what it takes to be a winning team.