University of Southern Mississippi football coach Jay Hopson called the second of the Golden Eagles’ preseason controlled scrimmages “a tale of two halves.”
Actually, the 2 ½-hour affair Saturday at Roberts Stadium was more a tale of two situations.
In the open field and on down-and-distance drills, USM’s defense was dominating, coming away with six turnovers and generally stifling the Golden Eagles’ offense.
But in short yardage and red zone drills, USM’s offense was effective, both on the ground and through the air.
“As a head coach, you kind of like the offense doing good on some things and the defense doing good on some things,” Hopson said afterwards. “That makes you feel good. You never want lopsided.
“Usually, when it’s good defense, then the defensive coordinator feels good, and the offense feels bad, or if you’re scoring every play, then the offense is happy and the defensive coordinator is mad. I kind of like it in between.”
Redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs had the better day in his duel with sophomore Keon Howard for the starting quarterback role.
Griggs completed 21 of 26 passes for 217 yards and threw four touchdowns to senior Isaiah Jones (8 yards), redshirt freshman Quez Watkins (3 yards), redshirt junior Chase Whitehead (3 yards) and redshirt junior Jay’Shawn Washington (1 yard). Griggs also threw an interception and had a 2-yard touchdown run.
Howard completed 11 of 23 passes for 155 yards with three touchdowns (75 yards to redshirt junior Tez Parks, 58 yards to redshirt senior Ben Olinger and 12 yards to Watkins, but threw two interceptions.
Freshman quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez was 4 of 7 for 25 yards with a 24-yard touchdown pass to freshman Tim Jones and two interceptions.
Hopson said he expected the quarterback competition to come down to the final week of preseason practice before the Golden Eagles’ Sept. 2 season-opener with the University of Kentucky.
“Might just flip a coin at 10 o’clock on Friday and just pick one,” Hopson said of the on-going battle to replace graduated four-year starter Nick Mullens that has see-sawed since spring. “But they competed hard and pushed each other.”
Hopson said while he would prefer to have one person seize the role of starter, he would not hesitate to play both.
“You ‘d always like and hope one guy to be so gangbusters that he separates, but you know, if they are both playing well and deserve to play, then I think it’s good that you have two guys,” Hopson said. “I’m not that guy, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have that one guy.’ If you have two quarterbacks who deserve to play, then you play them.
“One thing that does, if one guy’s hot, then you can keep playing him. If he’s not, then you can bring in a guy off the sideline to see if he can spark the team. It’s competition, and at most positions, you like competition.”
Howard, a Laurel High School product who appeared in three games in 2016, starting two, said the competition has been healthy.
“We always say, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter about the competition, as long as we can make Southern Miss a top 25 team,” Howard said. “That’s the only thing on our mind, making sure we’re making the whole collective moving forward.
“At the end of day, we’re competing day in, day out, to make each other better. We’re both pushing each other to make each other better.”
Redshirt junior Korey Robertson had six catches for 77 yards, while senior Allenzae Staggers had three catches for 73 yards. Watkins led all receivers with eight catches for 41 yards and two scores.
With senior Ito Smith held from Saturday’s scrimmage, Parks, junior T’Rod Daniels, redshirt freshman Andre Hale II and freshman got the bulk of the carries.
Parks gained 32 yards on 14 carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run, while Daniels gained 42 yards on six carries, including a 5-yard touchdown run. Hale had six carries for 17 yards, while Mayberry had five carries for 27 yards.
Defensively, senior safety Picasso Nelson Jr. and senior cornerback Curtis Mikell, redshirt senior safety Kevin Williams Jr., redshirt freshman cornerback Rachuan Mitchell, and freshman safety Tyler Barnes each came up with interceptions. Mitchell returned his pick 26 yards, while Williams went 99 yards for a touchdown with his.
The defense also recorded six sacks, including a safety and a sack by redshirt senior lineman Draper Riley. Redshirt senior defensive end Xavier Thigpen had two sacks, while redshirt junior outside linebacker Darian Yancey, sophomore lineman Demarrio Smith and redshirt linebacker Racheem Booth had a sack apiece.
Redshirt senior safety Kelsey Douglas recovered a fumble, while senior linebacker Allen Fails Jr, redshirt senior defensive lineman Derrick Dixon and Barnes each had a pass breakup.