The University of Southern Mississippi might have done enough right Saturday night to win its share of football games.
But it was what the Golden Eagles did wrong that wound up costing them dearly in a 37-31 loss to Troy University before an announced 27,905.
Despite three turnovers, a botched punt snap and a failed fake punt, USM still had a last-minute opportunity to pull out a win. But after driving to the Trojans’ 9-yard line with 3 seconds to play, Nick Mullens threw low and incomplete to Isaiah Jones in the back of the end zone on the game’s final play.
“It felt like everything that could go wrong went wrong, but we certainly gave ourselves the chance to win at the end,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. "You gave yourself a chance to win at the end."
Despite a third, consecutive 100-yard rushing performance by running back Ito Smith (131 yards on 20 carries), Southern Miss (2-1) suffered its first home loss since dropping the 2015 season opener to Mississippi State.
Troy (2-1) snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Golden Eagles, winning in the series for the first time since the teams’ first meeting in 1935.
“That’s a big win,” Troy coach Neal Brown said. “That’s a quality football opponent.
“They’re a team that plays as hard on video as anybody that we’ve played in my two years as a head coach. We talked about it with our team, that this was going to be a defining win for our team and our program.”
The Golden Eagles opened the scoring when safety Devonta Foster intercepted Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown.
It turned out to be USM’s last lead of the game.
Silvers was not particularly efficient, completing just 10 of 27 passes for 123 yards. But he was efficient, throwing for three touchdowns and directing an offense that did not commit a turnover after his initial gaffe.
On the flipside, USM miscues helped ignite a Troy rally that gave the Trojans a lead they never would lose.
Troy scored 27 points (three touchdowns) on possessions immediately after a Golden Eagle mess up, including two interceptions, a fumbled kickoff, a botched punt snap and a fake punt that came up a yard shy.
“Give Troy credit, but as a football coach, you felt like with all the turnovers and miscues, you kind of shot yourself in the foot,” Hopson said.
After Silvers tied the game on a 34-yard, play-action pass to Deondre Douglas on fourth-and-2 with 8:47 to play in the first quarter, Isaiah Jones fumbled away a kickoff return to set up at the Trojans’ at USM’s 29-yard line.
Two plays later, Silvers found Emanuel Thompson on a middle screen for a 29-yard touchdown that gave the Trojans a 14-7 lead.
On USM’s ensuing possession, a bad snap on a fourth-down punt attempt resulted in a 17-yard loss that set up Troy at the Golden Eagles’ 10-yard line.
The defense bowed up and kept the Trojans out of the end zone, but the first of Ryan Kay’s three field goals gave the Trojans a 17-7 lead.
The Golden Eagles spent the rest of the game trying to catch up.
Parker Shaunfield’s 41-yard field goal got USM back to 17-10, but the first of Mullens’ two interceptions led to Silvers’ 11-yard scoring pass to Andre Flakes for a 24-10 Troy lead.
But the offense sparked at the end of the first half, as Mullens drove USM 78 yards in 1:04 to cut the lead to 24-17 at halftime. Smith plowed in on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 8 seconds to play and the Golden Eagles out of timeouts.
Smith tied the game on the first play of the second half, bursting up the middle and going 70 yards for a score.
But Mullens was intercepted on USM’s next possession, setting up Kay’s 42-yard field goal, and when a fake punt try came up a yard shy of the first down, Troy turned that into a two-play touchdown drive, capped by Jordan Chunn’s 39-yard run.
“I just felt like we needed something,” Hopson said. “I never apologize for playing to win. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t.
“I thought we had a good call. (We) worked on it a lot this week, and I thought it was there and it was there. We just didn’t execute it to the best.”
Mullens, who completed 24 of 52 passes for 263 yards, found Allenzae Staggers for a 15-yard touchdown pass near the end of the third quarter to get the Golden Eagles within 34-31.
But Kay added a 43-yard field goal in the final period, and Chunn (176 yards on 36 carries) helped the Trojans grind away at the clock and the Golden Eagles’ opportunities.
“Our guys, they fought,” Hopson said. “We did a few good things, but it was a tough, hard-fought game.
“Give Troy credit. They won the ballgame.”