USM football braced to face No. 10 Auburn

WATCH: Jay Hopson's news conference - 9/24

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Growing up in Athens, Ala., University of Southern Mississippi sophomore receiver Quez Watkins dreamed of some day playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

That dream will come true Saturday afternoon, though instead of wearing the blue-and-orange of Auburn University, Watkins will be on the opposite sideline garbed in the Golden Eagles’ black-and-gold.

“I’ve always wanted to play at Auburn’s stadium,” Watkins said Monday afternoon. “Now, I’ve got the chance to, I’m going to do what I have to do.”

Watkins and the Golden Eagles (2-1) will visit at 3 p.m. Saturday the 10th-ranked Tigers (3-1), USM’s first trip to “The Loveliest Village on the Plains” since 2008.

The Tigers, whose lone loss came on a last-play-of-the-game field goal by Louisiana State University, trounced the University of Arkansas 34-3 Saturday.

USM is coming off a 40-22 victory over Rice University Saturday to open Conference USA play.

USM coach Jay Hopson said he is well aware of the task awaiting the Golden Eagles Saturday.

“It’s kind of who we are at Southern Miss,” Hopson said Monday morning. “We’re always going to play these games. That does help with recruiting because kids want to to know you’re playing, non-conference.

“We have Alabama and Auburn for the next four years, and next year we play Mississippi State. WE’ve played LSU, Kentucky, Tennessee, in the last two years. We know what we’re getting into and we know the challenge that we have ahead if us.”

Jordan-Hare Stadium seats 84,451, a sonic environment Hopson said he still can recall from his days as a defensive back.

“As a player, I played at Auburn,” Hopson said. “I know the environment that is Jordan-Hare. We know it’s a big-time environment.

“But it’s what happens between those white lines. The crowd is great, the fans are great, but it’s what happens between that square box that’s going to matter Saturday at 3 p.m.”

And it may matter just a little more to Golden Eagles like Watkins, Alabamians who will be returning to their home state to face a program that declined to bring them aboard.

“We have quite a few players from Alabama,” Hopson said. “We’ve always had quite a few kids from Alabama here at Southern Miss. That’s a big game for those guys to go back to their home state to play in front of their fans and family. It’s a great time for those guys.”

Junior cornerback Ernest Gunn, a native of Selma, Ala., said while he and the Golden Eagles are preparing for the game as they would any other, he would be toting a bit more baggage as he heads back home.

“If you didn’t offer me, then I’m going to take it personal because I feel I should have had an offer from you, too,” Gunn said. “I’ve gone out of state to play ball, but if we play you, I’m going to give everything I’ve got to beat you.”

Payne hangs up spikes

Senior running back George Payne, whose once-promising career was derailed by a series of injuries, has seen his final season come to an end even before it had a chance to begin.

In a Monday morning release from USM’s sports information department, Payne was said to have “sustained a career-ending injury which will force him to forego his final season of eligibility.”

The 6-foot, 207-pound Payne played during three seasons (2013-14, 2016), appearing in 28 games with two starts.

He ran for 940 yards on 232 carries (4.1 yards per carry), scoring 10 touchdowns, including a career-high six in 2014. Payne also caught 20 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in his career.

But he missed the entire 2015 season recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and then was sidelined in 2017 by a hip injury. Payne practiced sparingly during the spring, though he ran well in the Golden Eagles’ “Black-and-Gold” spring game.

But Payne was bothered by the hip through much of the preseason and then sustained another knee injury two weeks ago.

“George had a season-ending injury and he’s a guy that – God bless him – we were looking forward to getting back but he had a knee injury two weeks ago and that’s unfortunate,” Hopson said.

Payne became the second senior running back USM has lost in less than a week.

Last week, T-Rod Daniels announced on Twitter that he was leaving the team and transferring to another school.

Players O’Week

USM players of the week for Rice game included:

Offense _ Sophomore quarterback Jack Abraham, who completed 25-of-34 passes for a career-high 428 yards and tied a personal best with four touchdown passes.

“He was very accurate on Saturday,” Hopson said. “Jack had an outstanding game. He put the ball into play well.

“Jack did a really good job running our offense. Any time you’re playing football, you need really good football plays from your quarterback, and Jack certainly provided that Saturday night.”

Defense _ Sophomore quarterback Rachaun Mitchell, who finished with three tackles and the first interception of his USM career. His 45-yard return to the Rice 1-yard line set up Steven Anderson’s first career touchdown run and helped the Golden Eagles seize control of the game late in the second quarter

“He had a huge play there in the second quarter,” Hopson said.

Special teams _ Senior linebacker Jeremy Sangster, who led the team with eight tackles, including what Hopson called “a huge tackle” on a Rice kickoff return.

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