Tuesday March 5th, 2024 8:30AM

Jennings, dominant defense carry No. 25 SMU to AAC title, 26-14 over Tulane

By The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — SMU quarterback Kevin Jennings got hit in his throwing arm and fumbled on the first play of his first career start in a conference championship game on the road.

As Jennings came to the sideline, Mustangs coach Rhett Lashlee told him, “That wasn't your fault.”

“I know,” Jennings answered, and proceeded to play with the poise that SMU needed against a Tulane team that had won 10 straight and was trying to repeat as American Athletic Conference champions.

Jennings threw a touchdown pass and accounted for 266 yards from scrimmage, Collin Rogers kicked four second-half field goals and No. 25 SMU beat No. 17 Tulane 26-14 on Saturday in the AAC title game.

“Jennings played just like we thought he would,” Lashlee said. “We trusted him fully and I think he made a whole lot more big-time plays, particularly on third downs when he was scrambling, than the mistakes."

The Mustangs (11-2) also turned in a stifling defensive performance, limiting Tulane (11-2, No. 22 CFP) to a touchdown during the final 59 minutes.

“Our defense today, they dominated,” Lashlee said, highlighting how SMU held Tulane to 31 yards rushing, far below its average of 167.3 yards coming in. “That was the key. We made them one-dimensional and that allowed us to get the sacks.”

SMU sacked Michael Pratt seven times. Defensive back Isaiah Nwokobia's interception in the fourth quarter all but sealed it, sending fans to the exits of Yulman Stadium, where the Wave had celebrated its first AAC title a year ago.

Tulane converted just two of 15 third-down plays.

SMU “played really, really well,” Pratt said. “It was on a lot of downs that we didn’t make the play when we needed to.”

The game took place amid reports that Tulane coach Willie Frtiz is Houston's top candidate following the Cougars' firing of Dana Holgorsen. Fritz declined to confirm his intentions after the game and said, “No,” when asked if he had an agreement in place with Houston.

“I put everything into this game this week to make sure there wasn’t any distractions,” Fritz said. “I‘ve got to process some things. ... Just want to take a step back here.”

Had Tulane won, it could have returned to a major New Year's Day bowl game for a second straight year, having defeated USC in last season's Cotton Bowl. Now either Conference USA champion Liberty or SMU — which ever team winds up higher in the final College Football Playoff rankings — will play in a New Year's Six bowl.

SMU's league title was its first since winning the Southwest Conference in 1984. It'll also be the Mustangs' last in the AAC. They move to the ACC next season.

Tulane led 7-0 just two plays after SMU received the opening kickoff.

Playing in place of injured Mustangs starter Preston Stone, Jennings was stripped by edge rusher Devean Deal, who also recovered and returned the ball to the 1. Pratt scored on a keeper on the next play.

“I know our defense is going to have our back the whole game. So, I just need to stay straight, not get too down on myself,” Jennings said. “We had a whole game ahead of us.”

SMU tied it on Jaylan Knighton's 6-yard run in the first quarter.

The Mustangs punted only once in the first half, but a missed a field goal and turned the ball over twice more before finally taking a 14-7 lead on Jennings' 17-yard pass to Key'Shawn Smith late in the first half.

Tulane tied it at 14 when SMU bit on Pratt's play-action fake on third-and-1, leaving Yulkeith Brown wide open for a 42-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.

Rogers' 48-yard field goal gave SMU the lead for good at 17-14.

THE TAKEAWAY

SMU: When Lashlee was asked about the possibility of playing in a New Year's Day bowl, Lashlee noted that of SMU and Liberty, the Mustings were the only team “that went on the road and beat a Top 25 team.”

SMU’s loses this season came at TCU and at Oklahoma — both power conference teams.

“You play a real schedule, you should be rewarded for it,” Lashlee said. “We won in a fairly convincing fashion today. ... It should be a layup. I hope we don’t miss a layup.”

Tulane: The Green Wave was fortunate to be down by only one TD at halftime, having been outgained 249 yards to 82. Interceptions by Cam Pedescleaux and Jarius Monroe, and an early missed field goal by SMU, kept Tulane in the game. But the Wave's offense — hampered by injuires that sidelined starting receiver Lawrence Keys and reduced the role of fellow starter Jha'Quan Jackson — generally struggled.

“We’ve got some really good players that weren’t able to play down the stretch — and that’s difficult,” Fritz said.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

After cracking the AP Top 25 last week, SMU could move up a few spots. Tulane will fall, but peraps not entirely out of the rankings.

UP NEXT

Both teams await bowl invitations Sunday.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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