Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rice Owls 24 at SMU Mustangs 27 - November 26, 2011

Saturday was a blustery fall day, perfect for football. Or so I thought. With the Leafs' victory from the previous night fresh in my mind, I made my way over to Ford Stadium for the final game of the Conference USA schedule between the SMU Mustangs and the visiting Rice Owls.

Gerald J. Ford Stadium

Located on the southern end of the SMU campus, Gerald J. Ford Stadium opened in 2000, making it the last on-campus stadium in NCAA Division I-A to open in the 20th century. It is not named for President Ford (Gerald R. in that case) but a Texas businessman and SMU grad who donated most of the funding necessary to build the stadium.

Parking is $15 or $20 on campus, but I found a spot on a residential street across from the stadium, at most a three-minute walk away. It always amazes me how people avoid saving money when it can be done so simply. The worst case is to park in the overflow lot on the other side of the expressway and walk 10 minutes to the field.

All seats in the stadium are benches, with those on the sidelines going for $30 while end zone seats cost $15. The game I saw was less than half full and you could pretty much sit anywhere, so take that into account. The stadium has a horseshoe configuration, with the open end to the south featuring a grassy knoll on which kids can play.

The concourse is spacious and has a number of concession stands, with Chick-Fil-A the most notable. The visitors side of the stadium did not have as much variety in this area, it is better to sit on the home side, which is more crowded and has better atmosphere. I tried a normal hot dog and found it to be surprisingly good. Naturally booze is not available here.

There is one large video scoreboard at the south end of the stadium which showed replays, as well as two smaller scoreboards at field level behind each end zone.

Along the concourse you will see small posters of past SMU stars, including Eric Dickerson. There isn't much else, but then again, recent SMU history has not been kind. Many of you may not remember, but the SMU football program was given the death penalty back in 1987, where they had their season cancelled due to a number of violations. Can you imagine the NCAA doing anything similar to a big market school these days? Not when there is so much money involved. Anyway, the penalty nearly destroyed the football program, but it has been rebuilt slowly so that they are at least respectable now (they finished 7-5 this year).

The field is colourful and the two sections of seats are painted red and blue, the SMU colours. It makes for a nice scene, even on a cloudy day.

Doak Walker Plaza, named after SMU's former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer is located outside the northeast corner of the stadium. The statue here is a replica of the Doak Walker Trophy, given out each year to the nation's top collegiate running back.

Overall, the stadium is well worth a visit. In my mind, this is what college football should be like, without the hype that accompanies the big money programs but a simpler approach where the game is more important. Fans were friendly and there was a real family atmosphere, with kids everywhere and multiple generations of SMU and Rice graduates. There was no animosity between the schools or their fans, everybody just wanted to enjoy a good old fashioned Texas football game.

The Game

Remember I said blustery? By game time, it had turned into downright freezing, at least for Texas. The wind was steady and bone-chilling and it seemed to affect the play.

Both teams were anemic offensively, with no sustained drives in the first half. The only score was on a 45-yd pass and run for SMU, with standout receiver Darius Johnson evading tackles for about 44 of those yards. Out of all the players I saw today, Johnson was clearly the best and I'll look for him to be a late-round draft pick (update: he was undrafted but signed with Atlanta and was a key player in the game I saw on my 2013 NFL Road Trip).

In the second quarter, SMU 's Jared Williams broke a couple of tackles at the line and rushed 52 yards to the end zone to give the Mustangs a 14-0 lead. SMU was clearly the better team, but two interceptions from QB J.J. McDermott (taking a snap above) kept Rice in the game. On the first play after the second pick, Rice QB Nick Fanuzzi found Donte Moore for a 13-yard TD to make it 14-7, which is how the first half finished.

Just to illustrate how brutal the offenses were in this half, there were 9 punts, 4 turnovers, and a missed FG out of 17 meaningful possessions.

The second half began poorly for the home team, when Williams fumbled on their first play from scrimmage. Rice's Cameron Nwosu returned the drop 21 yards and the game was suddenly tied at 14.

Rice took the lead on a FG later in the quarter and this seemed to finally get the Mustangs motivated. On their subsequent possession they drove the ball for 10 plays (the only sustained drive in the game) culminating in a 1-yard TD run for FB Rishard Wimbley (below).

After Rice went 3-and-out for the umpteenth time, Wimbley scored on a 39-yard jaunt to make it 27-17 Mustangs with 9:36 to go. At this point I figured the game was in hand and given that I was very, very cold, I decided to head up to Frisco for the second game of the day. I missed Rice's last TD as well as a recovered onside kick that might have made the game interesting, but ultimately SMU prevailed 27-24.

This game might have been more enjoyable if it wasn't so chilly. From the stats, it might appear as if this was a good game, but neither offense generated much consistency, leading to 15 punts. Despite all that, I had fun at my first NCAA football game in 28 years. The atmosphere is unique and as I sat among the Rice supporters, I was impressed with how they all got along based solely on having attended the same university years ago. I'll keep my eyes open for more games like this next season.


As this was the last game of the regular season, the SMU seniors were honoured during the game by having their names called out during stoppages in play. A nice touch.

Before the game started, there was the invocation, where a prayer is said. They should have prayed for warmer weather.



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