Houston beats No. 19 SMU on late kick return

So much for overtime.

Houston’s Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown with 17 seconds left to give the Cougars a 44-37 win over No. 19 SMU. The loss knocks the Mustangs from the ranks of the undefeated and paves the way for Houston to go to the AAC title game.

SMU’s Blake Mazza kicked a game-tying field goal with 30 seconds left to seemingly send the game to overtime. But the Mustangs kicked deep and kicked it to Jones. He then ran over 100 yards for the game-winning score.

SMU had a chance to tie the game on a Hail Mary — the Mustangs already won a game with a Hail Mary earlier this year — after Houston’s squib kick was returned to the Cougars’ 34. But the pass fell incomplete.

Houston QB Clayton Tune was 27-of-37 for 412 yards and four touchdowns. His TD pass to KeSean Carter early in the fourth quarter gave Houston a 37-34 lead that lasted until Mazza’s field goal with less than a minute remaining. Houston led 17-0 in the first quarter before SMU tied the game in the second quarter and took the lead on a kick return to open the third quarter.

SMU’s Tanner Mordecai was 24-of-37 passing for 305 yards and three TDs and an interception.

Houston’s favorable schedule

The Cougars have three winnable games to finish out their American Conference slate. Houston plays South Florida, Temple and Memphis over the next three weeks before ending the season with a non-conference game against UConn.

Houston had a great schedule draw in 2021 without games against No. 2 Cincinnati or Central Florida. It was also the year that the Cougars had been building toward under coach Dana Holgorsen after redshirting players and playing underclassmen during the first two years of his tenure.

That attempt at college football tanking may be paying off. Houston is three wins away from the AAC title game and a likely matchup against Cincinnati. A win against the Bearcats — however unlikely — would give the Cougars an opportunity to play in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time since the 2015 Peach Bowl.