Three weeks ago Tulsa was battling top-five Boise State to a near standstill on national television and had high hopes of running the table in Conference USA with two road wins under its belt.
After a 27-13 thrashing on its home field by Southern Methodist on Saturday, Tulsa is in the midst of its first three-game tailspin since 2004. Its once high-powered offense has disintegrated, and at 4-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play, Tulsa is in danger of not being bowl eligible in a season that began with championship expectations.
"We were very disappointing and unimpressive," said Tulsa coach Todd Graham. "Our offense is regressing instead of progressing. We're not playing well and not preparing well."
The coaching decisions are falling flat as well. Tulsa trailed 20-13 with 5:31 to play and had a chance to pin SMU deep, but Graham went for a fourth-and-18 with a quarterback who had completed just two passes at that point. G.J. Kinne s pass was batted away and SMU drove for the clinching score.
SMU freshman quarterback Kyle Padron made his first start a memorable one, throwing for 354 yards and two touchdowns as the Mustangs improved to 4-4 and 3-1. Padron, who came off the bench a week ago in relief of injured starter Bo Levy Mitchell, completed 20 of 30 passes in his first start since the fifth game of his senior year in high school, during which he suffered a broken hand.
SMU's defense throttled Tulsa, limiting the Hurricane to 322 yards and intercepting Kinne twice, doubling his season total.
"Our defense did a great job, especially early in the first half when our offense was feeling its way," SMU coach June Jones said. "Kyle was a bit nervous and struggling early on, but he did a good job settling down. He makes plays and that's what you have to do."
Kinne led Tulsa to just 28 yards of offense in the first quarter. He was replaced by Jacob Bower, who promptly led the Hurricane to a 7-0 lead on his first drive, but struggled thereafter. Kinne finished 2 of 10 and Bower completed 9 of 22 for 206 yards.
"Our offense was flat, as flat as I've ever seen it since I've been here," said Bower, who was on the bench a year ago as Tulsa led the nation for the second consecutive year in total offense under Gus Malzahn, now the coordinator at Auburn.
Padron broke a 7-7 tie in the third quarter when he scrambled and found running back Shawnbrey McNeal in the flat. He twisted his way 36 yards for a score. That TD polished off a 98-yard drive, one in which SMU basically gave up on when it ran a draw on third-and-8 from its own 2-yard line, but Line picked up the first down.
Matt Szymanski added field goals of 35 and 31 yards to make it 20-7 at the outset of the fourth quarter.
Tulsa cut the deficit to 20-13 when Bower found tight end Jake Collums over the middle from 13 yards out. The conversion was blocked by 6-foot-8 Margus Hunt, his fourth blocked kick of the year.
Tulsa moved into SMU territory on its next drive, but the drive stalled and Graham ordered the pass instead of having Kinne pooch punt as he had done effectively throughout the game.
"They dropped a man back (to receive the punt) and we had a play called that should have been wide open," Graham said. "Then the ball gets deflected. We probably should have punted the football, but at the time, we felt like we needed to do something to spark our team. It was a bad decision."
Padron led SMU to the clinching touchdown, a 2-yard run by Zach Line, with the key play a 35-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders.
Tulsa had its only lead on a 13-yard run by Charles Opeseyitan, capping a 76-yard drive directed mainly by Bower.
The Mustangs, who had squandered an earlier threat on one of two first-half fumbles by McNeal, tied the game at 7-7 on an improvised play by Padron, who scrambled out of trouble and turned upfield. Linebacker Tanner Antle abandoned coverage of Cole Beasley to stop Padron, who flipped the ball just before crossing the line of scrimmage to Beasley. Beasley scampered untouched 41 yards for the score.
Aldrick Robinson led the SMU receiving parade with five catches for 104 yards, while Sanders had five for 79 yards.