Ponies Still on Track for Bowl Bid

SMU beat USF but ended up losing starting qb Garrett Gilbert. Photo Courtesy: Joseph Dowling
SMU beat USF but ended up losing starting qb Garrett Gilbert. Photo Courtesy: Joseph Dowling

By Zach Walker

The Mustangs going into this game against USF, needed to win two of their final three games to keep their bowl hopes alive. Sorry if I spoiled this game for you, but SMU won. But they did lose something along the way, their star quarterback Garrett Gilbert. In relief of Gilbert was Neal Burcham, a freshman quarterback, who was likely to start throwing meaningful downs at the beginning of next season, had his ups and downs, but in the end, the team he was driving ended up victorious.

The Mustangs would force the Bulls off the field on the game’s first drive, and the Mustangs would take the ball and drive for the first half’s only points. As usual, Gilbert would spread the ball, completing passes to four different receivers on the drive using the offense’s multi-depth plays, Keenan Holman deep for 20 yards, Darius Joseph two catches on short routes giving him the chance to shake out a bigger play, Jeremy Johnson on a crossing play for six yards, and K.C. Nlemchi out of the backfield for 15 yards. But in the redzone, the USF defense tightened on a third down Nlemchi run, and forced a Chase Hover 25-yard field goal. And that would end up being the only points of the half, but there was a few potential scoring chances.

The Mustangs would dodge an epic bullet because of a penalty committed by the Bulls, negating an 80-yard Marcus Shaw explosive run. Penalties would cripple the Bulls in this game, a false start on 3rd and 7 made a difficult conversion even more taxing, but a good punt would pin the Mustangs back, and let the Bulls loose on SMU. And wouldn’t the excellent field position just work out for the Bulls, getting an interception off the hands of Jeremy Johnson, and it was a pass that Johnson has caught hundreds of times, and he should have caught it there. But the Mustangs’ defense would hold strong, despite the Bulls starting at the SMU 36 yard line. The defense would only give the Bulls three yards on the drive, including a great tackle by Randall Joyner on 3rd down. And the defense’s stingy-ness would pay off, because Marvin Kloss wouldn’t get his plant foot planted and would slip during the follow through of the kick and result in a missed field goal.

A three and out by the Mustangs offense preceded a poor punt by Chase Hover, would give the Bulls another drive with good starting field position. But despite picking up a first down, the SMU defense would get the Bulls off the field, and back in the hands of Garrett Gilbert for a before the half touchdown drive. And the drive started very strong, seven straight positive yardage plays and two 3rd down conversions before a timeout with 1:44 left in the half, with the ball just on South Florida’s side of the field. A quick 6-yard play to move the chains to Jeremy Johnson would be Gilbert’s last positive play of the evening. After an incompletion towards Deion Sanders Jr., Gilbert would rush for six yards before sliding awkwardly, having his left knee plant hard and the rest of him landing roughly, and for a team looking towards playing an extra game this year, that is, literally, the last thing anyone would want to see. So enter freshman Neal Burcham. An incompletion towards Der’rikk Thompson was close to going the other way, and then on 4th down, Burcham would look towards Thompson again, with the same incomplete result. And the Bulls wouldn’t get anything going before the half ticked :00.

The second half would give Burcham a chance to establish something for SMU. On the opening drive for SMU, the Bulls gifted the Mustangs with a personal foul penalty for unsportslike conduct on 2nd down. Then a huge sack by Aaron Lynch on 1st down, but on 2nd and 19, K.C. Nlemchi would run and pick up 19 yards. Then a pass completed to Darius Joseph was fumbled but recovered Joseph for eight yards. After a small rush by Nlemchi, a big pass on 3rd and 4 to Jeremy Johnson for 12 yards. A small pass to Johnson for four yards, then a 13 yard catch and run Nlemchi, bringing the ball to the 15 yard line of USF. K.C. with a great run of nine yards in the redzone, setup a Prescott Line 6-yard touchdown run. It was a truly great drive behind some very strong football of K.C. Nlemchi. After a missed extra point by Hover, the Bulls would convert only one 3rd down and give the ball back to SMU.

The Mustangs would go on another solid drive, runs of 5 and 14 yards to start by K.C. then back-to-back catches by Joseph of 5 and 7 yards, before an incompletion. A 7-yard run by Line, then on 3rd down, the Bulls would be penalized 15 yards for pass interference. A Line 3-yard run, then another 15 yard penalty by USF for unsportsmanlike conduct. But three plays later, Neal Burcham was intercepted, trying to get the ball to Keenan Holman in the endzone, by Hassan Childs, who had the other pick of the game, the interception off of Gilbert. The Bulls went three and out following the interception and the Mustangs would go for it on 4th and 1 from the USF 37 yard line, and Burcham would make his best throw of the game, an absolutely terrific throw to Der’rikk Thompson, who made a great adjustment to make the catch for the touchdown.

On 3rd down, the following drive for USF, Mike White’s pass sailed too high for Andre Davis and was intercepted by Jay Scott. The Mustangs didn’t do anything with the ball but burn two minutes off of the clock. The Bulls would get the ball back and after converting a 3rd and 15 for 22 yards, the Mustangs’ Jonathan Yenga got credit for a sack on an intentional grounding penalty on 1st down, and an incompletion on 2nd down, the Bulls had to put the ball in the air on 3rd down, and like the way the last drive ended, Jay Scott intercepted a pass intended for Andre Davis. The Mustangs wouldn’t do anything, the Bulls would connect for a 73-yard bomb to Andre Davis, and two plays later, the Bulls were set with a 1st and goal from the SMU 8 yard line, then 3 straight 5 yard penalties against the Bulls offense put 1st and goal from the 17 yard line. Then four straight incompletions would turn the ball over to SMU. The Mustangs would drain two and a half minutes off the clock and then punt the ball to Chris Dunkley, who gutted straight through the punt coverage to return the punt 50 yards for the lone South Florida score of the game, because the two point attempt failed. And after recovering the onside kick attempt, the Mustangs would gain a first down and drain the rest of the game away.

Players of the Game
Offense: K.C. Nlemchi/Prescott Line/Neal Burcham
Defense: Jay Scott
Special Teams: Chase Hover