Ito Smith had himself a heck of a homecoming Saturday evening, and the University of Southern Mississippi couldn’t have been more delighted.
The junior running back ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries as the Golden Eagles topped Marshall University 24-14 before 31,275 at Roberts Stadium.
“It’s a nice win,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “We’re kind of in that playoff time of the year, and it’s good to get that one.
“We played hard and it was a tight game.”
USM (5-3, 3-1 Conference USA) snapped a two-game losing streak by beating the Thundering Herd (2-6, 1-3) for the first time since 2010.
“They’ve got to back to being what Southern Miss was,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said.
On a day that senior Nick Mullens became the school’s career passing leader and the Golden Eagles’ defense all but throttled the Herd, Smith still stood out.
He collected his fifth, 100-yard rushing game of the season, but his first in four games. He also hauled in four passes for another 43 yards, giving him 183 total yards for the game.
Smith’s two touchdowns served as bookends for USM's scoring Saturday, and matched the two rushing touchdowns he had against Troy as his season high.
“Ito’s a player, and sometimes he can make something out of nothing,” Hopson said. “You look in there, and think it’s toast, and all of a sudden he sticks his foot in the turf and jets out the other side.
“Ito’s a guy who makes plays, is a tough, physical back.”
USM's defense was stifling, holding Marshall to just 226 total yards, the Herd’s fewest against a C-USA opponent this season.
“I told our senior defensive linemen that I would give them everything I have this week because this is the first time they have beaten Marshall, and they wanted to beat Marshall bad,” said sophomore defensive end Darian Yancey, who had six tackles, including a half-sack.
Marshall netted just 60 yards on the ground, converted just 1 of 13 third downs and had just one play of more than 40 yards. Of the Herd’s 14 possessions, eight consisted of three plays and a punt.
“Offensively, we just didn’t move the ball very well, and when we had to make a play, we didn’t make one,” Holliday said. “Southern Miss is a good football team, give them a lot of credit, but we didn’t help ourselves, offensively.
All told, Marshall punted 10 times. Another possession end on an incompletion at the end of the first half and still another when USM defensive tackle Dylan Bradley blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
“That’s something we practice daily,” Bradley said. “That’s the first thing we do at practice.”
But USM couldn’t pull away from the Herd, leading just 10-7 after three quarters.
The Golden Eagles started the game with a bang, taking the opening kickoff and marching 75 yards on 15 plays to grab a 7-0 lead on Smith’s 1-yard run.
It was the second, consecutive game Smith had given Southern Miss a 7-0 lead with a 1-yard run and marked the 12th consecutive game he has scored a touchdown.
The Golden Eagles pulled ahead 10-0 on a 44-yard field by Parker Shaunfield early in the second quarter.
It was Shaunfield’s 12th field goal of the season, and his sixth from 40 yards or longer. He had yet to miss a kick this season until he sent a 41-yard field wide right in the third quarter.
Marshall’s offense, which had gained just 19 yards in the first quarter, sparked to life midway through the second to pull within 10-7 with 6:47 left in the first half.
Running back Keion Davis capped an 89-yard drive with his fifth touchdown run of the season, banging over from 5 yards out one play after USM was called for pass interference in the end zone.
Southern Miss seemed poised to pad the lead during the drive Mullens became the program’s career passing leader.
First, Mullens and tight end Julian Allen connected on a 52-yard gain to get the Golden Eagles out of a hole at their own 4-yard line. Mullens then surpassed former Golden Eagle great Austin Davis’ 10,892 career yardage record on an 11-yard screen pass to Smith with 1:16 left in the half.
Mullens completed 22 of 40 passes for 300 yards, and is the first Golden Eagle to reach the 11,000-yard plateau in career passing yards.
But after driving to the Herd’s 15-yard line, Mullens was sacked by Gary Thompson and Joe Massaaquoi for a loss of eight yards, and then on the next play, he lost the handle on the football while back to pass, a fumble that was picked out of mid-air by Ryan Bee.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Golden Eagles grabbed a 17-7 lead on Mullens’ first touchdown toss in two games, a 4-yard dart on a crossing route in the middle of the end zone to Allenzae Staggers.
It was Staggers’ sixth touchdown catch of the season, a team-high, and Mullens’ 17th scoring pass of the season.
After Bradley blocked Amoreto Curraj field goal, Mullens hit Isaiah Jones for 24 yards to the Herd 40-yard line, and on the next play, Smith broke free to push the lead to 24-7 with 4:23 to play in the game.
Marshall scored the game’s final touchdown when quarterback Chase Litton threw 44 yards to Michael Clark on fourth-and-1 with 2:26 left in the game.
“I’m just glad we won,” Mullens said. “We’ve been greedy for a victory the past few weeks, and to finally get it…it definitely wasn’t the easiest.
“But all other things, homecoming, the (passing) record, a pretty exciting and stressful game in the first half, it feels great (to win).”