No. 23 SMU has to avoid hangover against ECU after 1st loss
DALLAS (AP) — SMU’s chance for its first unbeaten season since the Pony Express days got lost near Graceland and not far from Beale Street.
The road for the No. 23 Mustangs in trying to represent the Group of Five in the Cotton Bowl only 25 miles from their campus got much more crowded.
They will need some help just to win their division and make it to the American Athletic Conference championship game after that spotlighted loss at Memphis. The Mustangs (8-1, 4-1 American, No. 25 CFP) are home Saturday against East Carolina (3-6, 0-5).
“You can get a little bit of a hangover effect for sure, and it lingers, and you’ve got to be able to put it behind you and move on,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said.
“We hadn’t really talked about being undefeated. I think we’ve got a fairly mature team and they understand in this league you have to play well or you’re going to lose, and it doesn’t matter which two teams are playing.”
SMU went from being the last undefeated Group of Five team to being only the fourth-best one-loss team from its conference when the first College Football Playoff rankings came out this week. East Division-leading Cincinnati was 20th, with Memphis 21st and Navy 24th.
So many people got their first real look at SMU’s big comeback three decades after returning from the NCAA death penalty when the Mustangs were at Memphis last Saturday. ESPN did its three-hour “College GameDay” show from Beale Street that morning, before SMU’s 54-48 loss in prime time.
While the Pirates still haven’t won a conference game for first-year coach Mike Houston, they were up 12 with less than nine minutes left last week against Cincinnati before the Bearcats recovered to win 46-43 on a game-ending field goal.
“The disappointing thing is not being able to secure that one, first really special win for our young program,” Houston said. “But you take all those experiences and you learn from them and you keep your focus on what’s right in front of you and that is continuing to push forward.”
There is a crowd atop the league’s West Division with Navy, Memphis and SMU all having one loss — a conference loss for each. The Mustangs play at Navy in their next game after an open date. The Midshipmen’s only loss was at Memphis in September.
SMU receiver Reggie Roberson Jr., who has averaged 100.4 yards receiving per game, is still dealing with a foot injury sustained Oct. 24 at Houston.
Even without Roberson, the Mustangs had two 100-yard receivers in the same game for the first time this season at Memphis: AAC receptions leader James Proche (13 catches for 149 yards) and freshman Rashee Rice (seven catches for 122 yards). Proche’s 34 career TD catches are tied with Emmanuel Sanders for the school record.
Holton Ahlers threw for an East Carolina -record 535 yards and four TDs against Cincinnati, with two 100-yard receivers. Freshman C.J. Johnson set a conference record with 283 yards receiving on 12 catches, and sophomore Blake Proehl had eight catches for 105 yards.
“I think our players will see quickly that they’re certainly capable of making big plays, and have some receivers that are really good, the quarterback’s playing at a really high level,” Dykes said. “That’ll get their attention.”
The teams last played in 2016, when Horace Richardson returned interceptions 70 and 80 yards for touchdowns in East Carolina’s 55-31 win at home. … The Pirates have forced a turnover in eight consecutive games, their longest streak since 2013. … The Mustangs will honor NFL Hall of Famer and late SMU great Forrest Gregg. His family members will take part in the pregame coin toss. Gregg played on both sides of the Mustangs line from 1952-55, and coached the team in 1989 and 1990 in the return from the death penalty. Gregg died in April at 85.