SMU’s football team has won its first conference championship since 1984 after knocking off No.22 Tulane in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game in New Orleans on Saturday.
The Mustangs overcame three first-half turnovers as their defense held Tulane’s potent offense at bay after an early touchdown and held on for a narrow victory after outscoring the Green Wave 12-7 in the second half of its final AAC game before departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
“They’re an uncommon team,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee told ESPN postgame. “It’s hard in this day and age to have a true team, and they did it for 12 straight weeks. We love the American. It’s been great to us, and [we’re] really thankful we could go out winning it.”
SMU could not have had a worse start. Tulane sacked backup quarterback Kevin Jennings on the first play from scrimmage and recovered a fumble to set up its offense at the SMU one-yard line. Quarterback Michael Pratt wasted no time, taking the ball into the end zone on the next play to take a 7-0 lead.
After trading punts, SMU finally got on the board with a 50-yard touchdown drive, capped by a six-yard run from Jaylan Knighton to tie the game, where it remained until late in the second quarter as the SMU defense continued to stymie the Tulane offense, even after Jennings threw two interceptions.
With 1:32 left until halftime, Jennings found Key’Shawn Smith for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Mustangs a 14-7 lead at the break.
Tulane tied the game early in the third quarter with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Pratt to Yulkeith Brown. SMU answered with three field goals from Collin Rogers to take a nine-point lead deep into the fourth quarter.
Tulane got an opportunity to cut into the lead with just over four minutes left, but Isaiah Nwokobia came up with a massive interception on fourth down to end the threat and give SMU a chance to seal the deal, and Rogers added another field goal to extend the lead.
The Green Wave made one more run, driving to the SMU two-yard line within the game’s final minute. However, the SMU defense continued its gutsy performance with one last stand to preserve the 26-14 win.
Jennings finished his first collegiate start with 266 total yards, a touchdown pass, and two interceptions.
Pratt led Tulane with 238 passing yards, a rushing touchdown, and a touchdown pass while throwing one interception.
WHAT TO KNOW
— SMU beat No.22 Tulane 26-14 in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, winning its first conference championship since 1984. It is the 12th conference championship in program history.
— SMU won all nine conference games and has not lost since September 23 against TCU.
— Jennings started in place of injured starter Preston Stone, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg.
— Nwokobia was named the AAC Championship MVP.
BY THE NUMBERS
— SMU sacked Pratt seven times, while Tulane managed just one sack.
— SMU outgained Tulane 249-82 in the first half while building a seven-point lead.
— SMU went 5-5 in the red zone, and Tulane was 1-2.
— SMU improved to 5-2 in road games this season, logging a five-game road winning streak.
— SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee to ESPN about winning the program’s first championship in 39 years: “I’m really happy for these guys because they bought in to what we’re preaching. Nobody does that anymore with NIL and [the] transfer [portal]. It’s all about ‘me.’ It was not. It was about ‘us’ and ‘we.’ They’re uncommon. Then, I thought about the thousands of SMU fans who have waited 40 years for this day.”
— Lashlee on Jennings’ performance: “I thought Kevin Jennings played just like we thought he would. Super poised, made a lot of big plays. Yeah, he had the two interceptions. One was not a bad decision … To step in as a redshirt freshman and help our team win a championship speaks volumes.”
— SMU (11-2, 9-0 in the AAC) is in consideration for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl spot, vying with unbeaten Conference USA champion Liberty. Bowl matchups will be announced on Sunday.