MONROE, LA - Coming off the third-most rushing yards in a single Southern Miss season (1,459) in 2016, Ito Smith garnered all the hype headed into his senior year.
The running back was named to the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists before the 2017 season. Smith failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark in USM's first two games, but finally erupted in game three.
The senior rushed for a career-high 219 yards on 27 carries in USM's 28-17 win over Louisiana-Monroe.
"When I came to the sideline, [Dr. Bo Morgan] was like you got 219 [yards]," Smith said. "I was like, 'Huh?' I didn't even know it but yeah I had a couple big runs. I didn't really have to do much tonight. The offensive line, they were opening holes as big as Texas man. I gotta make a guy miss here or there but yeah, it felt great."
Smith's 200-yard performance was the first by a Golden Eagle since Jalen Richard went for 230 yards against Texas State on Sept. 19, 2015.
It also marked Smith's 17th career 100-yard rushing game, tying him with Ben "Go-Go" Garry (1974-77) for second on the USM all-time list.
"Ito had an Ito day," Hopson said. "So that was good to see him - he just made some great runs. That's one thing about Ito, sometimes you think, 'Oh he's tackled' and he pops out. There he goes down the sideline for 50 [yards]."
"I love watching Ito run," said USM junior defensive lineman LaDarius Harris. "He's in my eyes one of the best running backs in the country. Other people have had that opinion as well. A lot that he does is individual effort, making guys miss. He's really good, I've been saying it for the past three years I've been here."
Smith's 31st career rushing touchdown on Saturday moved him into fourth place in the school's record books, passing Garry and Derrick Nix (1998-2000, 2002).
The record-breaking score ended like all the others but began quite differently. Smith took a direct snap in "wildcat" formation, before darting 27 yards to the end zone.
"It's fun, it's like you get a lot more space and you can really do what you want to do," said Smith when talking about the "wildcat" formation. "I've been telling [offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson] I like it. So, we should run it a lot more now."
"The one [Smith] scored on, I thought I was going to block for him but he made me look crazy on that one," said USM junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs. "Ito's a great running back. He'll to continue to get better as we go forward."
Smith continued to get better as Saturday's game progressed. The Mobile, Alabama native's longest run against ULM was a 44-yard scamper in the fourth quarter, which sealed the Eagles' win.
"Usually, the defenses tend to wear down," Smith said. "Those big guys up front were blocking their butt of for me and the defense really couldn't keep up with our tempo. Man, we go through a lot in practice with Coach Hop so we're well conditioned."
Smith's efforts in USM's win over Louisiana-Monroe earned him Conference USA Offensive Player of the week honors for the first time in his career.
In addition to his 219 yards on the ground, Smith's 13 receiving yards and 22 return yards for 254 all-purpose yards helped him become just the second Golden Eagle to amass 5,000 all-purpose yards. Smith's 5,093 career all-purpose yards trails only Damion Fletcher's 6,253 yards.