A Brilliant Fourth Quarter Comeback Falls Short as the SMU Mustangs
By Matthew Postins
In the space of a couple of hours the SMU Mustangs’ chances of winning their American Athletic Conference opener went from hopeless to hopeful to heartbreaking.
Rutgers ended up winning the game, 55-52, in three overtimes. SMU (1-4, 0-1) was down 35-14 with 1:18 left in the third quarter. The Mustangs rallied back to tie the game with a furious comeback that was capped with an absurd two-point conversion. The Mustangs and Scarlet Knights (4-1, 1-0) then battled for three overtimes before a 17-yard touchdown run by Justin Goodwin lifted Rutgers to the victory.
It was an offensive output the “Pony Express” Mustangs would have been proud of. And on Saturday SMU honored them by wearing 1983 blue jerseys and recognizing the 1983 team at halftime.
It just wasn’t enough to win.
“Too bad it goes to a losing effort,” SMU head coach June Jones said. “It would have been a big win. We’re 1-4 now and we have to win some games and get on a roll.”
The offensive numbers were staggering for the Mustangs. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw for 484 yards and 5 touchdowns, completing 45 out of 70 passes. He also scored both overtime touchdowns on the ground. Wide receiver Jeremy Johnson set a career high with 18 receptions. Those catches went for 217 yards, and his three touchdowns were instrumental in SMU’s comeback. SMU finished with 558 yards in total offense.
Gilbert spent nearly a minute looking at the postgame stats when he met with the media. He seemed to need the minute to absorb it all.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Gilbert said. “I felt we had it. We were right there.”
In overtime Rutgers was the one overcoming adversity to stay in the game. Down seven after Gilbert’s first touchdown run, the Scarlet Knights converted two fourth downs to put quarterback Gary Nova in position to hit wide receiver Leonte Carroo for a 4-yard touchdown pass. After tying the game, Rutgers went into the second overtime with the football first and had to overcome a 12-yard sack of Nova by SMU’s Beau Barnes, who had two for the game. Nova bounced back on the next play to throw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Leonte Carroo.
Gilbert then scored again, tying the game at 49. At that point Jones considered going for two to win the game, but that would have broken his rules.
“I have a rule – you go for one at home and two on the road in that situation,” Jones said.
SMU had the ball to start the third overtime and Rutgers stalled the drive out, leading to Chase Hover’s 37-yard field goal. SMU’s defense, a little spent at that point, was no longer able to slow down the run for the Scarlet Knights, as Goodwin’s touchdown run capped a 149-yard, 2 touchdown effort for the freshman.
“This one is a hard one to take,” SMU linebacker Randall Joyner said, who led all players with 18 tackles.
Goodwin, playing for an injured Paul James, also caught a 50-yard touchdown pass in the first half.
Nova finished with 283 yards passing and 4 touchdowns.
Down 35-14 late in the third quarter, SMU’s extraordinary comeback rendered their inconsistency and protection issues in the first half moot. No one was sure what sparked the comeback, but it started with Gilbert’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 11:08 left. But Hover missed the extra point and that became key later.
SMU’s defense finally shut down the Rutgers running game, leading to punts and extra opportunities to tie the game. Gilbert connected for another touchdown, this time with Darius Joseph, to cut the lead to 8 with 3:38 left.
Then things got interesting. SMU’s defense forced Rutgers into a fourth down situation at the Mustang 35. Rutgers chose to go for it and got nothing, giving the ball to SMU 65 yards away from the end zone with 2:24 left.
SMU went right to work. On the first play Gilbert and Johnson connected for a 43-yard reception. Three plays later Gilbert went to Johnson again, this time in the right flat and Johnson turned the short pass into a 13-yard score with 1:19 left.
Then things became a little absurd.
SMU needed a two-point conversion to tie. Gilbert set up in a shotgun formation with three receivers to his right. He had protection to start with, but great coverage by Rutgers gave the Scarlet Knights front four a chance to get some pressure. They flushed Gilbert out and nearly sacked him. Gilbert moved to his right with two Rutgers lineman in pursuit. He received a great seal block from an SMU offensive lineman to take care of one of them, but the second nearly caught Gilbert as he reached the sideline.
By then Gilbert had found the one receiver who was open – Johnson. But he was clear on the other side of the field and in the back of the end zone. Gilbert heaved it across his body, over the top of the entire Scarlet Knights secondary. But the drama didn’t end there.
Gilbert’s pass was terrific, but it was heading out of bounds. Johnson got as close to the back of the end zone as he could, got on his tiptoes and caught the pass while falling out of bounds. It took officials nearly four minutes to review the play and determine that Johnson’s catch was indeed a catch.
Gilbert said afterward it wasn’t totally by accident. As he rolled out he noticed Johnson was in the back corner of the end zone, but he was covered at the time. Gilbert said Johnson was his last-ditch option if everything broke down.
“I really didn’t think he was going to come back to me,” Johnson said. “But he made a great throw. I had to do all I could to catch that ball. We practice it every day. So that becomes a habit.”
Unfortunately for SMU, none of it led them where they wanted on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating to work that hard and lose,” Jones said. “I felt like we were going to win. I really did.”