Senior running back Ito Smith became the first University of Southern Mississippi player to crack the 200-yard rushing mark in almost two seasons as the Golden Eagles held off the University of Louisiana-Monroe 28-17 Saturday night.
Smith ran for 219 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, logging the first 200-yard rushing game of his career before 11,061 at Malone Stadium.
“Ito had an Ito day,” USM coach Jay Hopson said.
Smith broke off a 44-yard run in the game’s waning minutes to become the first USM rusher over 200 yards since Jalen Richard went for 230 yards against Texas State University on Sept. 19, 2015.
Smith’s night topped his 173-yard effort in the 2016 opener at the University of Kentucky.
“That was good to see him make some great runs,” Hopson said of Smith, who had come into Saturday’s game with 114 yards rushing in Southern Miss’ first two games. “That’s the thing about Ito, you think he’s tackled, and he pops out and there he goes, he’s down the sideline for 50 (yards).”
Junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs threw three touchdown passes for the first time in his career, as USM (2-1) amassed a season-high 534 yards total offense in its first-ever football trip to Louisiana-Monroe (0-2).
Griggs completed 17 of 32 passes for a season-high 250 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 15 yards and 20 yards to junior Korey Robertson and 42 yards to senior Allenzae Staggers.
Griggs also threw the first interception of his three-game collegiate career, getting picked off in the end zone on the 73rd pass attempt of the season.
Staggers led USM receivers for a second, consecutive game with four catches for 75 yards, while Robertson had three catches for 72 yards, all in the first half.
USM’s defense was touched for a season-high 330 yards, but one week after setting a school-mark by holding Southern University to 0 for 12 on third-down conversion attempts, the Golden Eagles limited the Warhawks to 3 of 16 on third downs.
USM also overcame a season-high 12 penalties for 125 yards.
“Look, a win’s a win in this deal,” Hopson said. “Certainly, we know we can play better, and that’s going to be our journey, to play better.
“But a win’s a win, and I thought everybody played hard, and I’m proud of that.”
Derrick Gore led the Louisiana-Monroe ground game with 96 yards on 18 carries. Caleb Evans, half of the two-headed quarterback position for the Warhawks, rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns, including a 67-yard touchdown that pulled ULM within 21-17 less than halfway through the third quarter.
But Griggs connected with Staggers, who made a juggling catch with 5:31 left in the quarter to re-establish USM’s two-possession lead, and the Golden Eagles kept Louisiana-Monroe off the scoreboard the remainder of the game.
It was the second time in the game that USM immediately had answered a ULM score.
The Warhawks had tied the game 7-7 on the second snap of the second quarter on Evans’ 1-yard run. But Smith capped a 10-play, 76-yard drive with his scoring run, taking a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation and slicing over left tackle for a 14-7 lead.
Hopson said those answers by the offense and a goal-line stand by the defense that turned a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line into a 19-yard field goal were huge factors in the win.
“First-and-goal at the one, and they didn’t get it in, and then when adversity struck and we gave up a touchdown, the offense came right back and answered,” Hopson said. “Those are the kind of things you can build on and you like to see as a football team.”