HONOLULU — In what was initially billed as a prototypical Hawaii Bowl, where offense and gaudy numbers usually lead to an exciting shootout, Southern Methodist University turned to its defense to frustrate and demoralize Fresno State in a lopsided laugher.
The Mustangs racked up seven sacks and employed a balanced offensive attack that wore down the Bulldogs en route to a 43-10 victory Monday in front of nearly 20,000 at Aloha Stadium.
Mustang senior defensive lineman Margus Hunt continually harassed Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and ended up with three tackles for loss, two sacks — one for a safety — and two forced fumbles. The 275-pound senior from Karksi-Nuia, Estonia, finished the season with a team-leading eight sacks.
“I knew they had a heck of a defense. All year long they had forced takeaways and defensive scores,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We knew that (Hunt) would be a problem, but not to that extent. At times, he was unblockable.”
Fellow senior Taylor Reed returned an interception for a score and recovered one of Hunt’s forced fumbles. Hayden Greenbauer set a Hawaii Bowl record with an 83-yard interception for a touchdown to finish the SMU blowout.
“It was a lot of fun, we knew from the get-go that it would be Monday night football, the only game in town,” Hunt said. “On the eight-and-a-half hour flight here, there was nothing really to do, so I pretty much just watched all (Fresno State’s) games. It felt great to get that safety and the sack-fumble.”
SMU (7-6) continued to thrive when scoring first, improving to 15-0, compared to a 0-13 mark when opponents strike first over the past two-plus seasons.
Conference USA offensive player of the year Zach Line rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, and quarterback Garrett Gilbert threw for 212 yards and a score while also rushing for 98 yards and a TD.
“I was most pleased that we did what we had to do to win the game,” said SMU coach June Jones, who improved to 5-1 in the Hawaii Bowl. “It’s not rocket science. If you take care of the ball (and force turnovers), you increase your chances of winning.”
Carr, the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 362 yards and a touchdown, while teammate Robbie Rouse — a first-team All-Mountain West selection and Fresno State’s all-time leading rusher — amassed a paltry 22 yards on 13 carries.
Sean Alston collected two interceptions for the Bulldogs and stood out as one of the squad’s few defensive bright spots.
After a scoreless first quarter, SMU went on to score 22 unanswered points in the second quarter. First to score was Gilbert on a 17-yard TD run. After Aaron Davis recovered a Carr fumble, Chase Hover converted a 30-yard field goal to extend the Mustangs’ lead to 10-0.
On the ensuing drive, Hunt came up big again, sacking Carr in the end zone for a safety. On SMU’s next drive, Line scored on an 8-yard run to go ahead 19-0. After yet another Fresno State fumble, Hover booted a 48-yard field goal to give the Mustangs a commanding 22-0 lead at halftime.
Fresno State showed signs of life in the third quarter as Alston picked off Gilbert and returned the interception 50 yards to the SMU 15. On third down, Carr connected with Mountain West freshman of the year Davante Adams for a 6-yard touchdown that narrowed the deficit to 22-7 nearly five minutes into the half. Adams finished with a game-high 144 receiving yards.
The Mustangs bounced back on their ensuing possession as Line turned in a 27-yard run, which led to a 21-yard touchdown pass from Gilbert to Darius Johnson to put SMU back up by 22 points.
Fresno State (9-4) countered with a 32-yard field goal from Quentin Breshears that trimmed SMU’s lead to 29-10 early in the fourth quarter, but the Mustangs erased any doubts by returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Reed went 69 yards with 9:05 left, and Greenbauer finished the scoring with his pick with 1:14 remaining.
“They came out and played well, very physical,” Carr said. “I just tried to do too much, and that’s not me. You’ve got to learn from it, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to pull out of this game. I’ve got a lot to work on.”
NOTES: SMU coach June Jones returned to the familiar setting of Aloha Stadium, where he led the University of Hawaii to a 76-41 record in nine seasons, including an appearance in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. … SMU played in its school-record fourth consecutive bowl game. … Fresno State played in its 24th bowl game, the 12th in the last 14 years. … FSU coach Tim DeRuyter set a school record for victories by a first-year coach (nine).