HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Keon Howard had a rollercoaster-ride of an afternoon in his collegiate debut for the University of Southern Mississippi Saturday at Old Dominion University.
The true freshman shed a potential red-shirt, starting at quarterback in place of injured starter Nick Mullens and back-up Parker Adamson, and threw for 230 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown.
The former Laurel High School standout also fumbled five times, losing four, lost 57 yards on six sacks, threw an interception and was caught for safety in the fourth quarter as the Monarchs took advantage of the five turnovers to construct a 51-35 victory over the Golden Eagles.
The two things Howard did not lose Saturday was his confidence or the trust of his coaches.
"I've been around a lot of players, and I look in their eyes, and I'm like, 'We're done; we have zero chance to go out there and move the ball,'" USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said Monday. "But, I'll tell you what, (with Howard) there was nothing. His confidence was shook zero, and I can live with that. I don't mind making mistakes. They're going to happen.
"Yeah, I wish we didn't put the ball on the ground. There's no doubt we probably win the game. But the overall positive moving forward with him is that I know, right now, is that you can't shake that kid."
The Golden Eagles may be relying on Howard for a second consecutive week, when USM (5-5, 3-3 Conference USA) travels to the University of North Texas (4-6, 2-4) for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff in Denton, Texas.
USM has dropped four of its last five games, while the Mean Green has lost three in a row, including a 45-7 loss at Western Kentucky University Saturday.
USM coach Jay Hopson said a timetable for Mullens' return is up in the air.
"Still day-to-day," Hopson said. "I won't have an answer for that (Monday). That will be toward the end of the week."
Howard, who said he had a pretty good idea by last Tuesday that he likely would be starting against ODU, said he and Hopson talked about losing his red-shirt season with just three games left in the regular season.
"We talked a lot about it last week, and I told him whatever was best for the team," Howard said. "I'm not a selfish player, and anything I can do to help the team, I'm going to do it.
"If that's me standing on the sideline cheering Nick on, standing on the sideline cheering Parker on, whatever's best for the team, I'm here to do it."
Hopson said he and the staff had hoped that they could red-shirt Howard this season, but had to do what they felt gave them the best chance to win football games.
Mullens was injured late in the third quarter of a 38-27 loss to Charlotte University on Nov. 4 when he was driven hard into the turf, head-first.
Adamson replaced him, and was lost in the fourth quarter on a hard tackle while scrambling through the middle.
"It was tough," Hopson said of the ODU outcome, "but I was proud of the effort. Just like with Keon. He played a great game. He's a young quarterback, and we had some turnovers early, but you can see the type of player he's going to be, and that's a positive.
"We knew going in, we were going to red-shirt Keon. We knew going in that we were going to try and get through the year healthy. That was the plan, but, unfortunately, we weren't able to and had to burn the shirt off Keon.
"I knew Keon was going to do a great job when he got in there. I think everyone got a little glimpse of what type of player he is. He was the first guy that I called when I got the job here. At the end of the day, he's a young man and I'm glad he's an Eagle. I'm just looking forward to his development and he's going to be an outstanding football player here."