After getting called out for not being physical enough against Texas A&M, SMU’s defense caused two turnovers in the fourth quarter to clinch a 28-17 win over UTEP Saturday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
The Mustangs (1-1) got their first Conference USA-opening win for the third season in a row.
UTEP (1-1) kept the game close all night. Up just 21-17 in the fourth, with an SMU punt pinned on the Miners’ 2-yard line, Mustangs’ linebacker Ja’Gared Davis rushed quarterback Jay Hall and knocked the ball loose. He recovered the fumble in the end zone and scored his third-career touchdown.
“It was a sigh of relief because we’ve talked a lot about it all through the off-season,” said Davis, who mentioned he’d been trying to get to the quarterback all night. “I came out and beat the tackle in the back and knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and scooped and scored.”
Earlier in the fourth, Davis had made his first-career interception that he returned for 12 yards, the last three of which he hopped on one leg to get while a UTEP player clinged to his other leg.
In addition to the interception and touchdown, Davis had eight tackles, two-and-half sacks and a forced fumble.
Turnovers had been hard to come by, as the Mustangs hadn’t had any in the past four games dating back to last season.
The defense as a whole had a successful night. Starting off slow in the first half, June Jones challenged them at halftime and the unit ended the game with six sacks (the most in the Jones era) and held UTEP to just 30 yards rushing.
“We weren’t executing [on offense] so it was good to see one of the sides of the ball stepping up,” said running back Zach Line, who had his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game (114 yards).
Line, who didn’t practice all last week with a strained hamstring, broke out for a 40-yard run on the first play of the game. He went on to score two touchdowns.
“I have runs like that in practice but it never works that way in games,” Line said with a big smile on his face. “I hope it happens a couple more times, it’s kinda cool.”
J.J. McDermott made his debut as SMU’s starting quarterback by going 18 of 31 for 244 yards and an interception. He didn’t have any touchdowns.
However, Jones mentioned that although McDermott had some big throws, there were a few times where he could have connected with the receivers on bigger plays, but the stadium lights were too bright.
“When I came to this stadium, I said the lights were put in place wrong for a passing team and our receivers tonight couldn’t see the ball,” Jones said. “We should have had two 98- or 99-yard completions and J.J. threw nice balls but we couldn’t find the ball.
“It’s on the docket to move the lights and to be honest with you, they need to be moved.”
Kyle Padron went in for two snaps. He found the end zone on his first play, a 12-yard run to put the Mustang’s up 14-10 at the end of the first quarter, and then threw an interception on his second outing.
For an offense that preaches the run-and-shoot, SMU was pretty balanced, throwing the ball 31 times and running 27 times. The reason being that McDermott is still getting his feet wet and starting center Blake McJunkin (high ankle sprain) was replaced by backup Bryce Tennison.
“Running the ball is an easier way to get comfortable with things,” Line said.
All in all, not a bad night.
“A lot of times you play bad and you lose and we’re getting to be a better team where we can play not so good and win,” Jones said. “We just need to tighten some things and get better.”
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