Jones returns kickoff 100 yards to lift Houston past SMU

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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HOUSTON- Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown with 17 seconds remaining to give Houston a 44-37 victory over No. 19 SMU on Saturday night, extending the Cougars’ winning streak to seven games.

After the Mustangs (7-1, 3-1 American Athletic) tied it at 37 on Blake Mazza‘s 45-yard field goal with 30 seconds left, Jones took the kickoff at the goal line and broke several tackles before breaking loose for the Cougars (7-1, 5-0).

“I didn’t think he was going to kick it to me at first,” Jones said. “Whenever I saw him kick it, I was going to return it. . I saw the seam and I was like, `I got to hit it.”‘

Jones, who also had an interception, has four special teams’ touchdowns this season, which leads the nation.

“I keep saying he’s the best returner in the country, which he is,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I think he’s getting to the point where I might say he’s the best returner ever. . The things he does are unbelievable, and for him to do it in both punt and kick, it’s unbelievable.”

SMU coach Sonny Dykes said the Mustangs’ uncertainty on the preceding fourth-and-2 play from the Houston 28 before deciding to kick the field goal played a large role in the kickoff return because they called timeout earlier then they would have wanted.

“Had I known we were going to kick the field goal, for sure, I would have let it run down, and we would have just squibbed it,” Dykes said.

With 30 seconds remaining, Dykes said he didn’t want to give Houston good field position.

“We were trying to kick the ball in corner and force him to go into the corner, and he just mishit it a little bit,” Dykes said. “The guy did a good job returning it.”

Tanner Mordecai had one last chance to tie it in the final seconds, but his pass into the end zone was knocked down.

Houston’s Clayton Tune threw for a career-high 412 yards and four touchdowns, Nathaniel Dell caught nine passes for 165 yards and three scores and Jeremy Singleton had five catches for 93 yards.

Tune threw touchdown passes of 7, 48 and 17 yards to Dell and had a 4-yard touchdown pass to KeSean Carter.

The Cougars finished with 489 yards and were 9 of 16 on third downs.

Mordecai was 24 of 37 for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Danny Gray caught five passes for 73 yards, and Rashee Rice had six catches for 51 yards and a score for the Mustangs, which finished with 355 yards.

Bryan Massey gave the Mustangs their first lead with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half, but the Cougars answered with another touchdown from Tune to Dell.

Tre Siggers scored on a 2-yard run to give SMU a 34-30 lead with 5:46 left in the third.

THE TAKEAWAY

SMU: The Mustangs’ saw their seven-game winning streak snapped and possibly their chances of reaching the American Championship game. . The Mustangs struggled in the running game, finishing with 50 rushing yards led by Siggers, who had 44.

“We have to make sure that one loss doesn’t become two,” Dykes said. “Who knows what’s going to happen in conference. There’s a lot of things that can happen.”

Houston: The Cougars are in control in the American with four games remaining. . The Cougars’ defense did well in limiting SMU’s high-powered offense and sacked Mordecai three times, which is one more than the quarterback had been sacked in the first seven games of the season.

“I still think our best football is still ahead of us, which is an awesome place to be when you’re sitting undefeated in conference and 7-1,” Holgorsen said.

JUMPING HURDLES

On a Houston third-and-9 from the SMU 48, Isaac Slade-Matautia hurdled Houston running back Ta'Zhawn Henry and batted down Tune’s pass to end the Cougar drive.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

SMU will fall at least a few spots following the loss and could drop out. Houston, who was receiving votes, could enter the poll.

UP NEXT

SMU: At Memphis on Saturday.

Houston: At South Florida on Saturday.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.