The University of Southern Mississippi started off its Conference USA football opener with a bang Saturday, but then watched as the University of North Texas’ offense exploded.
USM had leads of 14-0 and 21-7, but the Mean Green scored 26 consecutive points in the second and third quarters, pulling away for a 43-28 Conference USA victory before 21,907 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
The Mean Green (3-2, 2-0 C-USA) defeated the Golden Eagles (2-2, 0-1) for a second, consecutive season as USM fell for the second time in three home games.
USM running back Ito Smith ran for 100 yards for the second, consecutive game, finishing with 102 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, including a 65-yard touchdown run that put the Golden Eagles (2-2, 0-1 C-USA) up 21-7 early in the second quarter.
Smith also caught two passes for 47 yards, including a 45-yarder that set up USM’s first touchdown.
Kwadra Griggs threw for a career-high 277 yards and a touchdown, and also logged his first rushing touchdown as a Golden Eagle. But Griggs struggled at times, completing19 of 42 passes (45.2 percent).
Allenzae Staggers hauled in five passes for a season-high 112 yards and a touchdown, scoring for the third consecutive game.
But it was too much UNT quarterback Mason Fine, running back Jeffery Wilson and receiver Jalen Guyton.
Fine sliced up USM’s deep coverages, completing 24 of 40 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Fine did most of his damage in the middle two quarters, completing, 20 of 31 passes for 307 yards with touchdowns to Guyton (2 yards) and Rico Bussey (16 yards).
Wilson, C-USA’s leading rusher at 129.5 yards per game, ran for 148 yards on 30 carries and tie his career-best with three touchdowns. He scored on a 46-yard run on fourth-and-1 opportunity in the first quarter and added scoring runs of 43 yards and 6 yards in the second half.
His final touchdown kept the Golden Eagles at bay after they had closed to within 33-28 on the final play of the third quarter on Smith’s 4-yard run.
The Mean Green seized back the momentum, marching 75 yards in eight plays with Fine slicing his way through the crowd near the goal line to push North Texas’ lead back to 12 points. A key moment in the drive: USM was flagged 15 yards for a personal foul/hands to the facemask on third-and-1 at UNT’s 24-yard line.
North Texas went 4-for-4 on its fourth-down conversion attempts, and was 13 of 25 combined on third- and fourth-down conversions against a USM defense that had ranked second nationally in allowing third-down conversions giving up just six in the Golden Eagles’ first three games.
Guyton, who had 10 catches in North Texas’ first four games, grabbed a career-best 14 receptions for 211 yards and a score. Bussey was the only other Mean Green receiver with multiple catches (four catches, 33 yards), but Fine spread the football around, with eight players making at least one catch.
USM took the opening kickoff and went 75 yards in nine plays. Smith’s 45-yard catch-and-run set up the Golden Eagles at the Mean Green’s 7-yard line, and Staggers took a flip pass from Griggs around the right edge to give USM a 7-0 lead.
The Golden Eagles went up 14-0 when Griggs capped a 64-yard drive with a 4-yard run.
Wilson’s first touchdown cut the lead back to 14-7at the end of the first quarter, but Smith pushed the lead back to two touchdowns when he broke off USM’s longest play of the season, scoring from 65 yards out.
But it was nearly all UNT after that.
Fine found Guyton with a 2-yard pass to cap a 95-yard drive that started with Wilson nearly being caught in the end zone for a safety.
Trevor Moore, C-USA’s reigning special teams player of the week, kicked the first of his three field goals on the final play of the first half. His 48-yarder pulled the Mean Green within 21-17 at halftime.
Moore’s 20-yard field goal got UNT within a point early in the third quarter at 21-20 before the Mean Green took the lead for good on Fine’s fade to Bussey on the far left edge of the end zone. The catch initially was ruled out of bounds before being overturned by replay for a 16-yard touchdown and a 27-21 lead.
Wilson rambled 43 yards to give UNT a 12-point lead before Smith got USM back within striking distance.
But USM would not score in the final quarter and Wilson’s final TD run and Moore’s 44-yard field goal provided UNT’s final edge.