There may have been larger comebacks in the previous 99 years of University of Southern Mississippi football.
But it’s unlikely that any coaching era, anywhere, anytime, was baptized with a victory like the one the Golden Eagles presented Jay Hopson Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky.
After watching the University of Kentucky build a 35-10 lead with less than a minute left before halftime, USM scored the game’s next 34 points to present Hopson a 44-35 victory in his Golden Eagles’ head coaching debut.
After a shaky start that saw him throw three, first-half interceptions, senior quarterback Nick Mullens threw two touchdowns and ran for two more as the Golden Eagles (1-0) claimed their first win over an opponent from the Southeastern Conference since 2000.
It was the largest comeback at least since 2009, when USM trailed Virginia by 17 at halftime.
Junior running back Ito Smith piled up 213 yards rushing and receiving; including a career-high 173 yards rushing on 38 carries.
Junior George Payne reached the 100-yard plateau, hitting the figure on the nose on 16 carries.
Mullens completed 18 of 28 passes for 258 yards, including a 71-yard strike to first-year receiver Isaiah Jones just 14 seconds before halftime that started the Golden Eagles comeback.
Jones had a team-high 93 yards on three catches.
Trailing 35-17 at the break, the Golden Eagles’ defense eliminated the big plays that had fueled Kentucky in the opening 30 minutes and gave the ball back to the offense three times on two fumble recoveries and an interception.
All told, Kentucky (0-1) ran 16 plays on five possessions in the second half that netted just 46 yards.
USM scored every time it had the ball in the second half except for its final possession, when it turned the ball over on downs running out the clock.
Mullens scored on a 1-yard run to open the third quarter, and after USM recovered a fumble, he found tight end Julian Allen for an 18-yard scoring pass that pulled the Golden Eagles to within 35-31.
After forcing a Kentucky punt, Mullens capped a 57-yard drive with a 2-yard run to give USM a 38-31 lead.
Parker Shaunfield added field goals of 49 yards and 25 yards to cap the scoring and the Golden Eagles iced the game when defensive end Xavier Thigpen sacked Wildcats quarterback Drew Barker, forcing a fumble recovered by defensive tackle Dylan Bradley with 2:07 to play.
Barker had sliced up USM in the first half, unleashing a blitzkrieg offensive attack that saw the Wildcats score five touchdowns, with the longest drive taking just 2:04.
Four drives were 1:42 or less, with three less than a minute. Three of the possessions encompassed just two plays each.
Barker, a sophomore who had started twice last season, threw four touchdowns in the first half.
After Smith had given USM a 7-0 lead on an 8-yard run, Barker threw scoring passes of 53 yards and 43 yards to Garrett Johnson, 72 yards to Jeff Badet and 9 yards to Kayaune Ross.
JoJo Kemp’s 7-yard run with 56 seconds left in the second quarter put the Wildcats up 35-10.
Barker completed 15 of 24 passes for 323 yards in the game with the four touchdowns and an interception. Johnson had 143 yards and two touchdowns on six catches.
Stanley Williams led the Wildcats on the ground with 94 yards on 13 carries.