Mustangs' confidence needs some work
June Jones' SMU challenges Army late in Armed Forces Bowl but falls short on swagger
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Following SMU's 16-14 loss Thursday to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl, Mustangs coach June Jones knew what was missing from his steadily improving program: swagger.
Jones wants his team believing -- knowing -- that no matter what is going on during the course of a game that, in the end, it will make the plays necessary to win.
SMU showed signs of that in coming back from a 16-0 halftime deficit. But a missed field goal and clutch performances by Army's offense and coaching staff prevented the Mustangs from winning a bowl game in their home stadium.
"When you get good you have an arrogance where you carry yourself like you can't be stopped," Jones said. "We don't have that yet."
The good news for Jones is that the program is young enough that the arrogance can be developed. And there were signs of it in the second half.
Army jumped to a 16-0 lead thanks in large part to SMU turnovers. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron looked a little jittery early. He was sacked and fumbled on the opening drive, and Army's Josh McNary picked the ball up and rumbled 55 yards for a touchdown. Later in the quarter, Padron didn't see an Army linebacker and threw an interception.
Early in the second quarter, the ball came out of his hands wrong and fluttered over the intended receiver. It was not a good first half.
But Padron and his SMU teammates regrouped. The sophomore looked like a different quarterback after the break. He was calm and made accurate throws. He didn't hesitate to throw the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack and give himself and the offense another chance on the next down.
Instead of forcing things like he did in the first half, Padron seemed content to take what the Army defense was willing to give him. The result was a much more methodical offense that gained yards and found a rhythm.
"The second half was positive," Jones said. "I'm really proud of Kyle. When you have a quarterback like that and things go bad, they can go worse. He went from not a good first half to playing a pretty good second half. That says a lot about what's inside of him."
Padron left the stadium dejected about his first half and vowed to use it as a learning experience. He did the same thing last year, after lighting up Nevada in an impressive showing in a big SMU win.
"It's different coming off a loss," Padron said. "We did turn the ball over, we did make some mistakes and you can learn from those. It's going to be a long offseason for us, but we're looking forward to working every day. We're going to be a better team mentally and physically from Day 1."
Padron knows there's plenty of talent coming back. SMU loses some key parts -- the playmaking of wide receiver Aldrick Robinson and linebacker Youri Yenga and the leadership and steadiness of defensive back Sterling Moore and linebacker Pete Fleps. Kicker Matt Szymanski, who missed a 47-yard field goal late in the game that would have given the Mustangs the lead, is also a senior.
But the team includes a bunch of young players who will return to a program that has made two straight bowl appearances and played in the Conference USA title game in 2010.
"We talked about it in there," Jones said after the loss. "We have the foundation built. We have a lot of good players coming back and a lot of young players committed. We're making the step in the right direction to keep getting better. I think we're still a year and a half away from the recruiting class to have the depth we need, but I think we're learning how to compete together and play together."
Some of the young players who must make key contributions next year showcased their skills Thursday. Freshman wide receiver Keenan Holman had three catches for 36 yards, including two critical grabs on third downs. Sophomore wideout Darius Johnson was named SMU's player of the game after coming down with nine catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. Running back Zach Line, a sophomore, rushed for 103 yards. That was his seventh 100-yard game of the season.
Each member of Thursday's starting offensive line will be a senior in 2011, giving Padron experience in front of him.
Taylor Reed, a sophomore linebacker, led the team in tackles. Chris Banjo and Ja'Gared Davis, mainstays all season, will return. So will kick returner Kenneth Acker and defensive end Margus Hunt, who has 10 blocked kicks in his two-year career.
"We're going to be green in some areas, but we were still one of the youngest teams in college football," Jones said. "Those guys that fill in for them are going to have to step up. I think we have some young guys that will be good football players."
But more than step up, those young players must find that inner confidence Jones knows makes a good team a great one. They have to figure out a way to make the big plays when it matters most.
"It's frustrating because the players see it on film that it's there," Jones said. "But it still comes down to doing it on game day. We have to learn how to do that with arrogance."
Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.