DALLAS — Second-year coach Rich Ellerson already has a season to cherish at Army. Josh McNary and 24 other seniors get to leave on a winning note.
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.
"This senior class and this football team has earned a place in that pantheon of great Army football teams," Ellerson said. "They’ve brought something back to West Point that has been absent. It will flourish there because of the culture these guys have created."
The game featured former University of Hawaii players and coaches. SMU’s June Jones coached UH from 1999 to 2007. Army’s Rich Ellerson was UH’s starting center in the 1970s, played in UH’s first game in Aloha Stadium, and also was an assistant for the Rainbows.
When Ellerson was hired, Army (7-6) was coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons and had won only 30 games since its 1996 Independence Bowl appearance that was the last winning season — until now.
The Black Knights led 16-0 at halftime on SMU’s home field, then ran out the game’s final 4 minutes after Matt Szymanski was wide left on a 47-yard field goal attempt that would have put the Mustangs (7-7) ahead.
After quarterback Trent Steelman converted a pair of third downs, Ellerson was doused with the contents of a water cooler and the Black Knights celebrated a long-awaited victory.
"We had a great prep school class. We weren’t going into a very successful program," said senior linebacker Stephen Anderson, voted Army’s player of the game after 14 tackles, an interception and a sack. "We sat everybody down and said, ‘Look, we have the team that can bring winning football back to West Point.’"
It was only the fifth bowl game for the Black Knights, who hadn’t won a postseason game since the 1985 Peach Bowl.
SMU, with only four seniors among its 22 starters, 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.
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.
"We have the foundation built. I think we have a lot of good players coming back," third-year coach June Jones said. "We’re making the steps in a positive direction to just keep getting better. "
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.
Steelman ran for 6 yards on third-and-5 after SMU called its final timeout. On a third-and-4, he rolled right and had only his second completion, a 22-yarder before a final kneel-down.
"We really had no doubt," Steelman said. "Anytime we get the ball with that much time on the clock, it’s second nature to run our offense and do what we do out there. We came out and left it all out there on the field."
Jared Hassin ran for 82 yards to lead Army’s triple-option offense, which got 199 of its 229 total yards on the ground.
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.
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.
"I was a couple of steps away when the ball popped out," said McNary, a defensive end. "I happened to be in the right spot. "
The Mustangs kept their next drive alive when Szymanski, also the punter, ran 18 yards to convert fourth-and-6 from their 33. But 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, making it three straight drives inside the Army 30 without any points.
After Malcolm Brown took a pitch left 13 yards 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.
Zach Line ran 17 times for 103 yards for SMU, which 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 later threw a 28-yard touchdown to Darius Johnson.
"A few turnovers really came back to bite us in the second half," Johnson said.
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.