Southern Mississippi got exactly what it was looking for out of Saturday’s home-opening football game with Savannah State: a comfortable victory that saw the majority of the roster in action.
The Golden Eagles scored early and often, with most of the starters exiting for good late in the second quarter of a 56-0 win over the Tigers before 29,509 at Roberts Stadium.
“I thought we played pretty well,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “It’s always good to get the win in front of a home crowd. The guys played hard.”
Running backs Ito Smith and George Payne each rushed for more than 100 yards for a second, consecutive game and quarterback Nick Mullens accounted for four scores as the Golden Eagles began a season with consecutive victories for the first time since 2009.
The Golden Eagles rolled up 615 yards total offense, including 369 yards rushing.
Southern Miss not only set a Conference USA record for fewest yards allowed, limiting the Tigers to 41 total yards. The 41 yards allowed erased the old C-USA mark of 53 yards set by Cincinnati against Kansas in 1997.
Savannah State (0-2), which left Hattiesburg still looking for its first points of the season, managed just three first downs with 11 yards rushing and 30 yards passing, averaging 1 yard a play.
The Golden Eagles collected their first shutout since a 52-0 win over Alcorn State in the 2009 season opener.
“Obviously they’re much better than we are,” Savannah State coach Erik Raeburn. “We’re not good enough up front and can’t block anybody. Until we start blocking somebody we’re going to struggle to move the football. I’m disappointed, obviously.”
After having his first pass attempt tipped and intercepted, Mullens finished the game with 16 completions in 20 attempts for 216 yards and three touchdowns.
Running backs Ito Smith and George Payne each rushed for more than 100 yards for a second, consecutive game and quarterback Mullens accounted for four scores, including three touchdown passes.
Leading 42-0, Hopson began substituting liberally before the end of the second quarter. By game’s end, 67 Golden Eagles had hit the field.
“Adversity hit early with a big turnover and after a nice stop, we really picked it up,” Hopson said. “It is always good when you can get the whole team involved.”
Mullens opened the scoring with his third touchdown run of the season, a 1-yard plunge, in the first quarter.
All three of Mullens’ touchdowns this season have come on 1-yard runs.
Smith, who set career marks with 173 yards on 35 carries last week against Kentucky, gained 128 yards on just eight carries Saturday.
Smith popped an 86-yard run on a final “untimed” play that ended the first quarter. It was the longest of the junior’s career, the longest run in Roberts Stadium history and the third-longest in Golden Eagles’ history.
“I got the ball and I got tangled up with a linebacker,” Smith said. “The offensive line did a great job blocking and once I broke the tackle, I went around the end and (receiver) Isaiah Jones was blocking really well. He took out two guys for me so that was big.”
Payne, who ran for 100 yards against Kentucky, rushed for a career-high 116 yards and a touchdown, his first score since the 2014 season. Payne had missed 2015 while recovering from knee surgery.
Smith and Payne gave the Golden Eagles two, 100-yard rushers in back-to-back games for the first time since 2008 in consecutive games against Memphis and UAB.
“We just tell each other before every game to go out there and ball,” Smith said. “Leave everything out on the field.”
Four Golden Eagles caught touchdown passes, including Jones (65 yards), Korey Robertson (22 yards), and D.J. Thompson (16 yards) from Mullens.
Parker Adamson threw the first touchdown pass of his career, a 12-yarder to Marquise Ricard for the lone score of the second half.
For Ricard, it was his first score since 2014 after missing 2015 while recovering from knee surgery.
Nine Golden Eagles wound up catching passes, led by Jones for a second, consecutive week. The first-year, junior college transfer had 86 yards on three catches, while Ricard had a game-high six catches for 52 yards.
“We have a lot of guys who are good enough to play, and that creates a consistent competition at practice,” Mullens said. “Korey is good enough to play. Marquise is good enough to play. They all deserve playing time, so its just a matter of who can compete in practice and elevate their game to become the guy.
“When you have that competition and brotherhood, it makes everybody better.”
Allenzae Staggers, Jones’ former East Mississippi Community College teammate, scored the Golden Eagles’ other touchdown on a 65-yard punt return.
It was Southern Miss’ first punt return for a score since Tracy Lampley turned the trick on Nov. 5, 2011, against East Carolina.
Southern Miss remains at home Saturday, welcoming Troy University (1-1) for a 6 p.m. kickoff.