HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi rushing game managed to save its best for last Saturday afternoon at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Running back Steven Anderson scored his second touchdown of the game on a 6-yard run with 6 minutes, 2 seconds, to play and the Golden Eagles ran off the final 3:54 of the game to preserve a 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech University before an announced 19,142 on Senior Day.
USM (5-5, 4-3 Conference USA) won for the second time this season after netting less than 300 yards total offense while defeating the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-2) for the fourth consecutive year.
“Our kids kept battling and I couldn’t be prouder of these young men,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “They just kept clawing and scratching.
“We gave ourselves an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter, and we did. These kind of games are fun to win but tough to lose.”
Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz certainly agreed.
“There were some calls that went against us and some things that we could have done better,” Holtz said. “But, we had our opportunities in this game. We had some opportunities, but just couldn’t capitalize on them.”
The Golden Eagles had managed just 168 yards through three quarters, but gained 112 yards in the fourth. USM held the ball for 11:32 of the game’s final 15 minutes, as the Bulldogs’ offense had the ball for only 10 snaps in the fourth quarter.
USM defense limited Tech to 311 yards total offense. On their final three trips into the red zone, the Bulldogs missed a field goal and came away with six points on a pair of field goals.
“We tightened some things up in the second half because our coverage was a little loose,” Hopson said. “We locked down and have two talented corners that can run with anyone. I certainly thought we played better in the second half.”
Sophomore Jack Abraham returned after a two-game absence, and posted his second game in which he completed at least 80 percent of passes. Abraham completed 19-of-23 passes (82.6 percent) for 151 yards and a touchdown against the team he signed with coming out of Oxford High School.
“It was fun, for sure,” Abraham said. “I was playing against guys I used to practice against.
“But going into the fourth quarter, we started feeling confident that we would come out with the win.”
Abraham and his replacement the past two weeks, freshman Tate Whatley, were both in the starting lineup Saturday, with one at quarterback while the other split out wide in the formation.
Three plays into the game, the duo began swapping intermittent snaps, a practice that would continue throughout the game.
“I’m all for it,” Abraham said. “(Whatley’s) done a good job these few weeks, and can get some good QB runs and nice throws.
“I’m proud of him and our team.”
It paid off on the first drive, with the Golden Eagles going 74 yards for a 7-0 lead on Anderson capped with a 1-yard run.
Tech answered immediately, driving 75 yards and tying the score on a 5-yard touchdown pass from junior J’Mar Smith to sophomore receiver Adrian Hardy.
USM regained the lead early in the second quarter 14-7, when Abraham withstood a fierce rush and junior Neil McLaurin absorbed a vicious hit but stayed on his feet to complete the 49-yard scoring play.
At that point, USM’s offense went into a funk for the remainder of the second quarter and then through most of the third, allowing the Bulldogs to take the lead.
Senior running back Kam McKnight scored on a 6-yard run to cap a nine-play, 59-yard drive that tied the game with 4:49 left in the first half and junior place-kicker Bailey Hale knocked through a 24-yard field goal as Tech closed the first half with a 17-14 lead.
Hale missed a 29-yard field in the third quarter before hitting a 23-yarder early in the fourth for a 20-7 lead.
But the USM offense came back to life, moving 85 yards on 14 plays, with Anderson popping straight up the middle to tie the game followed by Briggs Bourgeois’ game-winning extra point.
Abraham and Whatley combined to complete 6-of-7 passes on the drive for 63 yards, and the Golden Eagles converted twice on 3rd-and-four and once on fourth-and-one.
After Tech managed one first down, the Golden Eagles forced a punt. Taking over at its own 14 with 3:54 to play, USM ran the ball on eight of nine snaps. Anderson, who became the first Golden Eagle to run for multiple touchdowns in a game this season, carried six times for 17 yards on the final drive.
USM will wrap up the regular season with a road trip to the University of Texas-El Paso at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Golden Eagles must win six games to become bowl eligible. But C-USA could possibly sport as many as eight, bowl-eligible teams, including six with at least seven victories.