The University of Tulsa’s best player picked the ideal moment to deliver his team’s only takeaway of the game and secure a pivotal victory.
No. 19 SMU, armed with the nation’s most productive quarterback, had a prime opportunity to add more drama to an already wild game on a windy Saturday night at H.A. Chapman Stadium.
Linebacker Zaven Collins, an all-America candidate, plucked a pass from Shane Buechele out of the air with 89 seconds left, wrapping up the improbable 28-24 win and keeping the Hurricane’s American Athletic Conference record unblemished.
“We needed a big play out of the defense,” Collins said. “ … I saw the ball up in the air and just went up and got it.”
After Collins’ third interception of the year, he intentionally went down to the turf near midfield. TU (4-1, 4-0 AAC) was able to drain the rest of the clock, prompting an epic celebration on the field that continued in the locker room.
“I’m really, really proud of our players — the way they fight, the way they stay together through adversity, through thick and thin,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “They’re resilient with the way they play. Obviously, they’re trying to give their coach a heart attack.”
The Hurricane trailed 21-0 in the first half and relied on huge performances to secure a fourth consecutive victory and defeat a second ranked team in a season for the first time in program history. The other takedown of a ranked team, a 34-26 win against then-No. 11 Central Florida, also required a significant comeback.
“We’ve been in this position before,” quarterback Zach Smith said. “Throughout the season we’ve been in this position and come back and won the game. We knew we could do it. There wasn’t any panic.”
With four minutes left, TU’s offense went to work and quickly moved down the field with a pair of completions to Keylon Stokes before trying to eat up more of the clock. TK Wilkerson got TU to the 4-yard line, setting up an important third-down play.
Smith threw a short pass to tight end James Palmer, who reached his arms into the end zone for the go-ahead score and his first career touchdown. It completed an impressive turnaround from what was a brutal start for Smith, who accounted for two turnovers on his team’s first five plays.
Attempting to avoid a three-and-out on the Hurricane’s opening possession, Smith lofted an overthrown pass that was intercepted by Brandon Crossley and returned 18 yards for an SMU touchdown.
On the next play, Smith mishandled the snap and the fumble was recovered by the Mustangs, who faced third-and-long when Buechele brilliantly connected with tight end Kylen Granson for a 22-yard score.
Trying to shake the early struggles, TU ignited on the following series, finding a rhythm on a lengthy 14-play possession. A sack and a false-start penalty pushed the Hurricane out of the red zone, and the result was a field goal attempt from Zack Long that was wide right.
SMU (7-2, 4-2) continued to churn out yards, advancing down the field with relative ease and punching in a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter for the 21-0 advantage.
The teams traded stops, and Smith was flawless on the Hurricane’s ensuing series, completing all five pass attempts including a 20-yarder to Josh Johnson for the touchdown.
After forcing a punt, TU was flagged for roughing the kicker, extending the Mustangs’ drive and leading to a field goal. With two minutes left in the half, Smith was sacked twice in four plays to come up empty again.
To open the third quarter, the Hurricane advanced to the 1-yard line before running into trouble. On back-to-back plays, Wilkerson was stuffed for a turnover on downs.
SMU followed with a missed field goal, and TU again marched to the 1-yard line, where a near-fumble by Deneric Prince nearly resulted in another missed opportunity. A review determined Prince’s elbow was down, and Wilkerson reached the end zone two plays later.
Early in the fourth quarter, the game intensified when Smith found Johnson wide-open for a 35-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 24-21.
The defense twice made a crucial stand to halt the Mustangs on fourth down in the fourth quarter, giving the Hurricane a chance to win the game late.
“We don’t have much stress whenever the defense is out there,” Smith said. “We know they’ve going to get stops and get the job done.”
— By Kelly Hines, Tulsa World
Read all of our game coverage below.
From a turbulent start that included a Zach Smith interception and a Smith fumble, there was a wonderful end result for Smith and the Golden Hurricane.
Breaking down the win in four downs.
Another bad first quarter
In last year's heartbreaker, Tulsa led 20-9 entering the fourth quarter but lost to SMU in three overtimes.
“There’s still a lot more games after that, but this one would obviously put you in the driver’s seat and you get to control your destiny with it,” coach Philip Montgomery said.
The 19th-ranked Mustangs bring an efficient offensive machine to H.A. Chapman stadium.
Rick Dickson is classified officially as the “interim athletic director,” but he is not a placeholder. He’s as empowered as any actual athletic director would be.
"He's a special player with a ton of ability," Hurricane coach Philip Montgomery said. "I think he's the catalyst of what makes them who they are."
“This is a challenging schedule and it probably isn’t complete,” coach Frank Haith said.
On Thursday, the Hurricane’s Saturday game at Navy was postponed because of the COVID-19 situation at the Naval Academy. TU has had six games canceled or postponed this season.
The move, a result of positive cases and contact tracing at the Naval Academy, marks the third time a Hurricane game has been postponed or canceled on a Wednesday or Thursday before the game was scheduled to be played.
After a fumble nearly cost the University of Tulsa the game – and perhaps should have, according to the American Athletic Conference – coach Philip Montgomery didn’t hesitate putting the ball back in the hands of running back TK Wilkerson.
With less than two minutes remaining in Friday night’s 34-30 win, TK Wilkerson lost possession of the ball and the officials ruled it a fumble recovered by the Pirates. Upon video review, the ruling was reversed.