Mustangs Squeak Out Win Late

September 5, 2009  

By Robby Gillespie
rgillespie@smu.edu

In front of a record crowd of 34,749 at Ford Stadium, the SMU football team rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to beat Stephen F. Austin 31-23 Saturday.

Junior transfer running back Shawnbrey McNeal, who was reinstated within 48 hours of game time, led the Mustangs rushing game with 153 yards, the most by an SMU back since 2005. His 49 yard touchdown run with 1:31 left in the game sealed the Mustangs win.

“Last year we wouldn’t have come back. We’re getting better,” said head coach June Jones. “And it was good to see a lot of people there.”

In a game mired in three-and-out SMU drives and a few big scoring plays, the Mustangs earned their first season opening win since 2000.

McNeal transferred from the University of Miami (Florida) in the summer of 2009 for personal family reasons. The NCAA granted the Dallas native an exemption from sitting out the mandatory one season, as the NCAA rules state for transfers. His 153 rushing yards Saturday are one yard more than he accomplished in his two years at Miami.

“He loves the game. He’s a really special kid,” Jones said. “He’s been through a lot of tough things in his life.”

McNeal was a bright spot in an offense that lacked yards gained and point production. Sophomore quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell connected on 23 of his 45 passes for 202 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The offense put up 17 first downs, compared to 19 from SFA, and went 4 for 16 on third down.

“We’re going to have to get better to keep going,” Jones said. “We dropped a lot of balls and that makes [Mitchell] lose confidence. We just got to be better and execute in the passing game.”

One of the few examples of passing execution came in the first half when Mitchell slightly overthrew wide receiver Darius Johnson, who leaped past the defender and raked the ball in over his head in mid air landing in the end zone. It was the freshmen’s first career touchdown reception at SMU.

The Mustangs defense and special teams stepped up when the offense could not. SMU’s first points came when senior Emmanuel Sanders broke open for an electrifying 79 yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter.

In the fourth quarter, junior Matt Szymanski nailed a 53 yard field goal to tie for third longest at SMU. The play brought SMU to within a touchdown with only 14 minutes left in the game.

The defense forced six turnovers including five interceptions from SFA quarterback Jeremy Moses. Senior defensive back Rock Dennis had two interceptions. Moses finished 31-52, 392 passing yards, and 2 touchdowns. SFA ran for 69 total yards.

“You can sense the defense is coming together as a group,” Jones said. “[Dennis] is a good athlete. He gives us some depth and experience. He’s a winner.”

SMU was one of the eight of 12 total teams in the C-USA to win Saturday. Coach Jones and many players have said before, the goal this season is a bowl game. A loss Saturday at home would have hindered their success this season.

“I tell them all the time, the key is to not lose home games if you want to get to a bowl,” Jones said.

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