Tulsa had a 30-9 lead when the fourth quarter at SMU started on Saturday. TU had a 30-9 lead and a first-and-5 at the SMU 29-yard line in the third quarter. TU had a 30-9 lead at a time of the game where your win probability with that lead is 98%.
Well, 30-9 became 30-30 with a minute left in regulation, and then a 43-37 TU loss at the end of the third overtime.
That means that as much as the Golden Hurricane is ready to get on with the season and focus on Saturday’s game against Navy, we must reflect on last week and try to figure some things out, maybe ask some questions.
I asked TU coach Philip Montgomery on Tuesday if he wishes he would have done anything differently during that tailspin of a fourth quarter.
“Hindsight 20-20, there’s some different calls in there in all three phases,” he said. “At the time, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. But obviously as you look back on it you’re going to be critical of yourself.”
Montgomery answers for his team ultimately, but particularly for his offense as play-caller and quarterbacks coach. Another question, then: Did Montgomery get too conservative trying to nurse that 30-9 lead?
“I didn’t use as much tempo in the fourth quarter because we did have a lead,” he said. “Tempo is a big part of our game, but at that stage I need to be working the clock more than I need to be working tempo. And so we slowed it down and tried to eat the clock a little bit more.
“But I don’t think our play selection was conservative at all. We were still throwing the football. We were still taking shots down the field. We had an opportunity for a big one to Keylon (Stokes), kind of a bang-bang play that could have gone either way. That would have been a huge one for us.
“I don’t think we got conservative. I think we stayed aggressive throughout.”
After SMU scored at the outset of the fourth quarter to make it 30-16, TU ran for a short gain, completed a 7-yard pass, then ran for a first down. Next came Zach Smith’s long ball to Stokes that was broken up at the last second, followed by a short run and a short completion.
TU punted after using 3:22 of the clock.
After SMU scored to make it 30-23, Smith took over and immediately hit Stokes for 15 yards to move the ball to midfield. Then came a short run, a short completion and a 1-yard loss on third-and-2 to set up another punt.
The play-calling was a decent mix of run and pass. Not overly cautious or ambitious. The execution was hit and miss.
Montgomery played the percentages by burning the clock, taking a delay of game on fourth-and-3 and punting with 5:30 remaining. At that point of the game, and with the offense performing inconsistently, he was justified in asking his defense, his team’s strongest unit, to make a play.
It didn’t happen.
SMU drove 80 yards in 14 snaps. The Mustangs got out of a third-and-20 jam thanks to a pass interference penalty on Reggie Robinson, the TU cornerback who was also flagged on a fourth-and-goal incompletion at the Hurricane 1-yard line late in the third quarter.
“The one in the end zone was a bang-bang play. Could have been called, could not have been called, let’s put it that way,” Montgomery said. “The one down the sideline (on third-and-20), I think Reggie is actually in pretty good position. He’s just got to be more confident right there and not kind of panic, if you will.”
SMU completed its final drive and 21-point rally with a 4-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2. That marked the second fourth-down conversion of the drive and fourth in the fourth quarter. Four conversions in four attempts.
If TU stops just one of those, the game is all but over.
If Smith leads Stokes a little more on that deep ball early in the fourth quarter — the TU receiver had a step — the score is 37-16 and the game is all but over.
If Montgomery calls a different run play or even a short, safe pass on the third-and-2 before TU’s final punt, maybe the offense converts. If the offense converts, the game is all but over.
None of this occurred, and now we’re into the middle of a new week with folks still in frustrated disbelief over the old one.
“I think our team is decisively better. We’re continuing to get better,” Montgomery insisted. “We’ve just got to continue that process and find ways to win. The other night, all three phases had an opportunity to win.”
He meant offense, defense and special teams. We should add a fourth, coaching, especially since it is coaches who get paid to win every Saturday, not players. It is ultimately their responsibility, win or lose.
That TU lost at SMU under such winnable conditions remains mind-boggling, regardless of the guilty parties or the details in their explanations.