One play does not make a football game.
But Saturday night, one play seemed to signal a turn in the University of Southern Mississippi’s fortunes in what turned out to be a 44-28 Conference USA loss to the visiting University of North Texas at M. M. Roberts Stadium.
Leading 21-7 halfway through the second quarter, a 39-yard punt by USM’s Zac Everett had pinned the Mean Green at its own 5-yard line.
On first down, UNT running back Jeffrey Wilson took a handoff and appeared to have been caught at least 2 yards deep in the end zone by USM defensive tackle Rod Crayton. But instead of the upraised “hand pyramid” signal for a safety, Wilson sprung loose to his right and was able to get the ball out to the 3-yard line.
What ensued shifted the game’s momentum, as USM went into an overall, quarter-and-a-half funk.
The Mean Green marched 97 yards in 11 plays (the official drive was 95 yards in 12 plays), first getting out of the shadow of the goal-line on an 11-yard pass and later converting a fourth-and-2 with a 3-yard completion at the USM 32. A 15-yard personal foul penalty for a late hit by USM took the ball inside the red zone.
Four plays later, quarterback Mason Fine found Jalen Guyton with a 2-yard touchdown pass and the extra point pulled UNT within 21-14 with 2:42 left in the first half.
The seven points were the first of 26 unanswered points by the Mean Green.
“We were playing really good football until about five minutes left to go in the second quarter,” USM coach Jay Hopson said Monday during his weekly news conference. “Seemed like everything was going right, and then we had that near miss and didn’t quite get that safety.
“It seemed like everything went wrong for a quarter-and-a-half. Tough third quarter. They got a big touchdown and a field on the last two possessions right before the half and a couple of scores to start the third.”
USM defensive Tony Pecoraro said the missed two-point opportunity followed by the ball going back to the Golden Eagles on a free kick was big moment in the game.
“We had the opportunity for the safety, and now that’s like a thing that we can preach and teach,” Pecoraro said. “You make a ‘gator roll’ tackle, you do not let go until the whistle blows.
“That could have been a pivotal point in the game right there. Twenty-one, then twenty-three, plus the football back and that could have been the difference in the game. All of sudden, it’s out of the end zone, we give them a big play, get them down there, we get a 15-yard penalty, then (four) players later, they’re right down there and they’re scoring. It was a momentum swing in the game.”
Certainly, that swing was not the sole reason for the Golden Eagles’ loss that opened conference play.
UNT converted four, fourth-down opportunities to keep drives alive, as the Mean Green rolled up 543 yards total offense, nearly double the average amount USM had allowed during the first three games of the season.
Those conversions also allowed UNT to hang on to the football, as the Mean Green held a more than 14-minute time-of-possession advantage, including a whopping 12:05 to 2:55 spread in the fourth quarter.
After scoring touchdowns on three of its first five possessions, USM’s offense didn’t get on the scoreboard again until the final play of the third quarter, when the Golden Eagles cut the lead back to 33-28 with a whole quarter to go.
But the Golden Eagles (2-2, 0-1 C-USA) managed just three first downs on 16 fourth-quarter snaps, converting one third-down opportunity and gaining just 45 yards in the final 15 minutes of the game.
“I absolutely agree with one of things that I heard after the game that Coach (Hopson) said was that there was blood on everybody’s hands, mine included,” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “There were multiple things that I could have done.”
Dawson said the offense fell short in two areas, first by missing opportunities to score more points when USM was up bug early and then when the Golden Eagles cut UNT’s lead to five points after three quarters.
“We’re up 21-7, have a chance to go up 28-7, and we had a wide-open guy down the middle of the field, and we miss him,” Dawson said. “We had two or three just wide-open opportunities to make the game 28-7, and then it’s a different ballgame, and we didn’t … We just kept them in the game.
“Then, at the end of game, after we go score, which was a positive, we don’t match them. They picked up the intensity level of the game, and we didn’t.”
USM players of the week for the UNT game:
Offense: Senior running back Ito Smith, who topped the 100-yard mark for a second consecutive game with 102 yards and two touchdowns (65 yards, 4 yards) on 13 carries (7.8 yards per carry). He also caught two passes for 47 yards.
Smith now has 33 rushing touchdowns in his career, moving past Harold Shaw (1994-97) into third place on the career list for rushing touchdowns. The 100-yard game was the 18th of his career, moving him into second place past Ben Garry (1974-77).
Defense: Senior Jomez Applewhite, who collected nine tackles (four solo, ½ tackle for loss) and intercepted his first pass of the season and third of his career.
Special teams: Freshman defensive WyDale Flott, who had a bone-jarring hit on the initial kickoff of the game.
“That kind of set the tone for us early,” Hopson said.