With Rice University determined to keep the University of Southern Mississippi’s running game in check Saturday evening at Roberts Stadium, the Golden Eagles simply took to the air and soared to the top of the record book.
Senior quarterback Nick Mullens threw for a school-record 591 yards and four touchdowns, while junior receiver Allenzae Staggers caught six passes for a single-game record 292 yards and three scores as USM overwhelmed the Owls 44-28.
“It was a tale of two halves and it was an outstanding game of defense in the first half and an outstanding half of offense in the second,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “When the other unit was struggling a little bit the other side picked it up. It was good to see.”
With Mullens completing five passes of 54 yards or more, the Golden Eagles (4-1, 2-0 Conference USA) rolled up a record 704 yards total offense.
“Mullens is the class quarterback of the league,” Rice coach David Baliff said. “We’ve got to watch him grow up from a youngster to what he is now. He makes great decisions with the football, he’s very accurate and he’s got great touch.”
Staggers caught touchdown passes of 75 yards, 81 yards and 93 yards on his way to breaking the school mark of 240 yards set by Kendrick Lee against Houston in 1996.
“It means a lot but, next week I’ll try to beat my own record,” said Staggers, who more than doubled his touchdowns and receiving yardage over the first four games. “I wasn’t focused on how many yards. I just wanted my team to go out there and keep scoring.”
Staggers broke the mark on a 19-yard pass in the third quarter, a completion that also pushed Mullens past the single-game passing mark of 461 yards set by Austin Davis against Rice in 2008.
Mullens also completed a 54-yard pass to running back Ito Smith and an 81-yard pass to tight end Julian Allen. The five, big pass plays covered a cumulative 385 yards, accounting for nearly two-thirds of Mullens’ passing yardage.
“I think it was, 65 of their plays went for a total of 317 yards and five of them went for 380 yards,” Baliff said, just slightly off. “A lot of those big plays are just us growing together. Some of those were in ‘zero,’ where we’ve committed six to the rush and some were in zone.”
Mullens has feasted on Owl . In just six quarters against Rice over the past two seasons, he has thrown for 977 yards and nine touchdowns.
Smith saw his streak of four games with 100 yards rushing come to an end as the Golden Eagles finished with a season-low 111 yards rushing.
But Smith still picked up 141 total yards, including 77 yards on the ground, and scored on a 2-yard run. He has scored at least one touchdown via run or pass in 10 consecutive games.
Allen finished with three catches for a career-high 101 yards, while D.J. Thompson finished with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Place-kicker Parker Shaunfield remained perfect on the season, boosting his season to 9 of 9 with three field goals Saturday, including two of 40-plus yards.
But even at time lost amid a sea of numbers and big plays and records, Rice (0-5, 0-3) hung tough, particularly in a first half that saw the Golden Eagles clinging to a 13-7 at the break.
Sophomore running back Samuel Stewart ran for a career-best 132 yards on 19 carries, adding another 14 yards on a team-high five catches.
Stewart scored three times, giving Rice a short-lived 7-3 lead in the second quarter. He also scored on runs of 24 yards and 17 yards in the second half.
But USM pretty much put the clamps on the Owls’ passing game. While quarterbacks Tyler Stehling and Nate German combined to complete 16 of 20 passes, the Owls only gained 100 yards through the air.
And while neither Owl threw an interception, the Golden Eagles collected a season-high seven sacks, including 3 ½ by senior Dylan Bradley.
Bradley, who came into the game with six tackles for loss and 1 ½ sacks, finished half a sack short of the school-record four held by Cedric Scott and Chris Jackson.
Shaunfield opened the scoring with a 22-yard field goal for the only points of the first quarter, before Stewart scored out of the backfield on short flip from Stehling.
But on the first play after the kickoff, Mullens found Staggers behind a trio of Rice defenders, and caught the fleet receiver in stride for a 75-yard touchdown that put USM back ahead 10-7.
Mullens combined with Allen for an 82-yard gain that set up Shaunfield’s 42-yard field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.
The Golden Eagles needed less than a minute into the third quarter to pad the lead, with Mullens again finding Staggers over the top, this time for 81 yards and a 20-7 lead.
Stewart’s first touchdown run brought the Owls back within a score, but Mullens and Staggers teamed up again, with Mullens’ career-long 93 yard hookup putting USM back up by two scores.
Smith’s run boosted the lead to 34-14 near the end of the third quarter, before Stehling found Zach Wright with an 11-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter.
Mullens threw his fourth touchdown of the game on USM’s next possession, hitting Thompson with a 9-yard pass before Stewart brought Rice back to 41-28 with his second scoring run.
Shaunfield capped the scoring with a 43-yard field goal with 6:11 to play in the game.
“Hard fought win,” Hopson said. “For the second weekend in a row we had a slow start but our guys kept digging. We played hard. In the first half we played really well defensively and the second half we played really well offensively. It was a tale of two halves with us right there. We battled hard for 60 minutes and it feels good to get the W.”