HONOLULU — Freshman Kyle Padron threw for an SMU-record 460 yards, leading the Mustangs to a 45-10 victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl on Thursday night – SMU's first postseason appearance in 25 years.
It was a triumphant return to the postseason and paradise for the Mustangs and second-year coach June Jones, who left Hawaii after nine seasons and has revived a dreadful SMU program hit hard by the NCAA death penalty.
SMU fans chanted "Thank you, June!" in the fourth quarter, but it was his young quarterback who shone and earned the MVP award.
The 18-year-old Padron, who was 32 of 41 and completed two touchdown passes, was confident and composed on the biggest stage of his young career.
He earned the starting job after Bo Levi Mitchell was injured in the seventh game of the season and was largely unknown coming out of Southlake Carroll in Texas, which produced quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Greg McElroy.
Despite the tiny crowd at the game, people are paying attention to Padron – and SMU.
The Mustangs (8-5), who were 1-11 the previous two years, have their most victories since their last postseason game – also in Hawaii. SMU beat Notre Dame 27-20 in the 1984 Aloha Bowl to finish 10-2.
The 12-point underdogs dominated from the opening bell, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and building a 38-0 advantage by the third.
Padron had 303 yards passing in the first half alone, breaking SMU's bowl record of 281 yards by Chuck Hixson in the 1968 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.
Padron's 17- and 2-yard touchdown passes in second quarter gave SMU a 31-0 lead at the half and had the Wolf Pack searching for answers. The 17-yarder was to Emmanuel Sanders, who had seven catches for 124 yards.
Sanders finished his career as SMU's career leader in receptions, touchdown catches and yards.
Shawnbrey McNeal added 63 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including two in the first quarter. He also had seven catches for 53 yards.
The loss was the fourth straight in the postseason for the Wolf Pack (8-5), whose No. 1 rushing offense in the nation was grounded. But it was the Nevada defense that looked as if it was left behind feeding Wheel-of-Fortune machines in Reno.
While SMU racked up 534 yards of offense, Nevada had held to just 314, including 137 yards rushing. The Wolf Pack averaged 362.3 yards rushing during the regular season and is the first team in NCAA history to have three 1,000-yard rushers. But Nevada was without two of them in running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott.
Taua was ruled academically ineligible and Lippincott was sidelined with a toe injury.
The Mustangs wasted no time getting on the scoreboard and attacking Nevada's anemic pass defense, ranked second worst in the nation.
On the second play of the game, Padron found a wide-open Cole Beasley near midfield. Beasley was dragged down from behind at the Nevada 9 for a gain of 71 yards. It was the longest pass in SMU bowl history, breaking Doak Walker's 53-yard pass to Paul Page in the 1948 Cotton Bowl.
McNeal scored on the next play.
The Mustangs got the ball back on the next series by stopping the Wolf Pack on fourth-and-2.
Padron then connected with Sanders for a 58-yard gain, setting up McNeal's 1-yard TD that put SMU up 14-0 less than 6 1/2 minutes into the game.
Meanwhile, Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick couldn't get anything going on the ground or through the air. Kaepernick, who rushed for 1,160 yards in the regular season, had just 23 yards rushing on 13 carries.
Kaepernick was 15 of 29 for 177 yards. He threw a 10-yard TD pass with a minute left in the game.