DALLAS (AP) — Josh McNary scooped up a fumble and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown and Army held on to beat SMU 16-14 in the Armed Forces Bowl on Thursday, giving the Black Knights their first winning season since 1996.
Army (7-6) had a 16-0 halftime lead on SMU’s home field, then ran out the final 4 minutes after Matt Szymanski was wide left on a 47-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Mustangs ahead.
SMU (7-7) still hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since resuming play in 1989 after being the only team ever given the NCAA’s so-called death penalty.
Army got the ball back with 4:05 left and quarterback Trent Steelman converted a pair of third downs. He ran for 6 yards on third-and-5 after SMU called its final timeout, then later rolled right and threw a 22-yard pass on third-and-4 for only his second completion in the game before a final kneel-down.
The Black Knights doused second-year coach Rich Ellerson with the contents of a water cooler. They ran to the far end of the field to share the victory with their fans.
When Ellerson was hired, Army was coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons. The Black Knights had won only 30 games over 12 seasons since their 1996 Independence Bowl appearance that capped a 10-2 season and was its last winning record until now.
The Mustangs last season ended a 25-year bowl drought with a win in the Hawaii Bowl that gave them an 8-5 record. That was only the second winning season since the death penalty, and this was the second .500 record in that span.
SMU’s Kyle Padron completed 23 of 34 passes for 302 yards, including touchdowns on consecutive drives in the second half before the Mustangs got their last chance. He had two interceptions and a fumble before halftime.
SMU faced fourth-and-6 after Padron scrambled to avoid a sack and dumped a 3-yard pass to Darius Johnson. After a timeout, and coach June Jones exchanging a fist pump with Szymanski, the kick fluttered wide left.
Jared Hassin ran for 82 yards to lead Army, which got 199 of its 229 total yards on the ground.
The matchup provided a reunion for Jones and Ellerson, who were teammates at Hawaii in 1974 and later spent a season there together on the same coaching staff. They played against each other in college and coached against each other in Canada.
Jones removed his name from consideration for the Maryland job this week, saying he was committed to the Mustangs. They are 15-12 since going 1-11 in Jones’ first season after he left Hawaii following an undefeated regular season and BCS appearance.
Padron hit Aldrick Robinson for a 45-yard pass on the first play of the game, but two plays later fumbled while being sacked by Zach Watts. McNary picked it up and ran untouched to the end zone.
The Mustangs used a little trickery to keep their next drive alive when Szymanski, also the punter, ran 18 yards to convert fourth-and-6 from their 33. The drive stalled at the Army 18, and Szymanski was wide right on a 35-yard field goal attempt at the same open end of the stadium into the breeze.
Padron threw the first of consecutive drive-ending interceptions when SMU got the ball back.
Despite gaining 156 total yards and getting inside the Army 30 on all three of their drives in the first quarter, the Mustangs trailed 13-0.
After Malcolm Brown took a pitch left 13 yards for a touchdown to put Army up 13-0, the extra point was blocked by 6-foot-8 Margus Hunt, a world-class shot put and discus thrower from Estonia who had never played football before getting to SMU last year. It was his third blocked kick this season and the 10th in his career, already a school record.
Alex Carlton, kicking at the same end where Szymanski had both of his misses, made a 44-yard field goal with 2:39 left in the first half.
SMU finally scored when Padron capped a 92-yard drive with an 8-yarder to Robinson, the eighth consecutive game the senior receiver caught a TD pass. Padron threw a 28-yard touchdown to Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Zach Line ran 17 times for 103 yards for SMU.
The Armed Forces Bowl is usually played on TCU’s campus, but the main grandstand at 80-year-old Amon G. Carter Stadium was brought down earlier this month as part of a $105 million modernizing renovation. Bowl officials said before the season that their game was temporarily moving to SMU, with plans to return to Fort Worth as early as 2011.