Two years removed from a one-win season, Southern Methodist is headed to the Conference USA championship game.
Zach Line scored on a short touchdown run in overtime and Richard Crawford followed with the game-ending interception to help SMU beat East Carolina 45-38 on Friday, clinching a spot in next week's title game in a dramatic finish.
On a day when the Mustangs (7-5, 6-2) both rallied from a 14-point deficit and blew a 14-point lead, Line scored on a 1-yard run to start the overtime and put SMU ahead for good. Then Crawford came up with the huge defensive play by stepping in front of Lance Lewis and catching Dominique Davis' quick slant throw.
The play sent SMU players spilling onto the field to celebrate with Crawford, who after being tackled raced all the way to the end zone with his teammates in pursuit.
"We set a goal for ourselves, 10, 11 months ago to be conference champions and it didn't look like we were going to have a chance to do it," SMU coach June Jones said, "but the kids kept believing."
SMU went 1-11 in Jones' first year, then shared the league's West Division crown with Houston last year -- though the tiebreaker sent the Cougars to the league championship game. This time, SMU -- which beat Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl to cap last year's eight-win season -- earned at least a share of the division title with Friday's win. The Mustangs also had the tiebreaker over Tulsa by winning that head-to-head matchup in October.
Tulsa beat Southern Miss later Friday, finishing alongside SMU atop the division.
Next up: either Central Florida or Southern Mississippi for the program's first league championship since winning a share of the now-defunct Southwest Conference title in 1984.
"We persevered as a team," said Line, who ran for 123 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. "It was a good team victory. That's something we've been missing all year. It means a lot for the program, winning a (division) championship. ... I think the ball's on our side and I think we need to keep rolling with it."
Kyle Padron threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns despite suffering an ankle injury for the Mustangs, while Cole Beasley and Aldrick Robinson each had 100-yard receiving days to go with a score. Ja'Gared Davis also returned a fumble for a touchdown in a 21-point third quarter that kept the Mustangs in control for most of the second half.
Yet SMU -- which trailed 14-0 in the first quarter -- nearly gave it all back by blowing a 38-24 lead in the final 9 minutes against the two-time defending league champion Pirates (6-6, 5-3).
Davis scored on a 9-yard run with about 5 minutes left to cut SMU's lead in half, then the Pirates forced a three-and-out to get the ball back once more with 2:39 left. They drove all the way to the 7-yard line before Davis sent a short pass on the left side to Lewis, who took a hit by Crawford and Chris Banjo at the goal line and fell into the end zone with 12 seconds left in regulation to tie it.
Crawford bounced back from that play by making an even bigger one.
"They ran that route like three times and I was kind of playing conservative on it," Crawford said. "And (secondary) coach (Derrick) Odum just told me, 'Next time you see it, just jump it and make a play on the ball.' And that's what I did."
While Crawford celebrated by running the other way with his teammates, Lewis stayed on the ground, his face buried in the turf.
"We had him all day," Davis said of Crawford. "I really didn't think he was ever going to adjust to it and he adjusted to it at the right time."
Jon Williams ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns for East Carolina, while Davis threw for 314 yards. Lewis finished with eight catches for 154 yards and two scores.
East Carolina entered the day with slim hopes of returning to the league championship game. But the Pirates had to win this one, then have Southern Miss beat Tulsa and Memphis beat UCF on Saturday to create a three-way tie atop the East Division.
SMU, facing the much simpler win-and-in scenario, took all the complex tiebreakers out of the equation with Crawford's interception.
"We just came out on the short end of the score in overtime," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.