There’s an old football adage that says while offense sells tickets, defense wins ballgames.
Saturday night, while the University of Southern Mississippi’s offense certainly did its share, it was the Golden Eagles’ defense that laid the base and then cemented a 24-0 victory over visiting University of Texas-El Paso before 21,970 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
It was USM’s first shutout of a Football Bowl Subdivision program since the Golden Eagles defeated the University of Alabama-Birmingham 3-0 in 2001. It also marked the third shutout of Jay Hopson’s 19-game tenure as USM head coach.
The shutout also was the second in five games this season. USM also blanked Southern University 45-0 on Sept. 9. The last time the Golden Eagles logged two shutouts in a season: 1999, when USM blanked the United States Military Academy (24-0) and University of Louisiana-Lafayette (45-0).
The Golden Eagles (4-2, 2-1 Conference USA) rolled up 423 yards total offense, balanced between 202 yards rushing and 221 yards passing as USM won consecutive games for the second time this season.
But USM’s defensive numbers were staggering, as the Miners (0-7, 0-3) suffered their first shutout since 2012. Consider:
UTEP managed only 147 yards total offense, a season-low for the Miners
UTEP managed six first downs, a season low
UTEP netted just 17 yards rushing, averaged just 2.9 yards a play
UTEP has scored a cumulative 20 points in the last three meetings with USM
Senior running back Ito Smith logged his fourth consecutive game with at least 100 yards rushing, going for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. It marked the fifth consecutive game Smith had scored at least one touchdown, and was the second time this season he had run for two scores.
Sophomore quarterback Keon Howard started for a second consecutive week and completed 16 of 27 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. He also threw a pair of interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half.
Howard’s touchdown pass went for 52 yards to freshman Jaylond Adams, who hauled in the first score of his USM career for a 7-0 lead. Adams also grabbed a 52-yard pass in the fourth quarter as he recorded the first 100-game of his career with two catches for 104 yards.
Smith scored on a 2-yard run 41 seconds before halftime at the end of a bizarre sequence that saw the teams exchange the football on three consecutive plays.
USM’s senior defensive back Justin Abston recovered a muffed punt at UTEP’s 33-yard line with 1:02 left in the first half, only to see Howard picked off at the 2-yard line with 57 seconds left in the half on the Golden Eagles’ first snap.
But UTEP running back Kevin Dove was stripped of the football coming out of the end zone by USM junior defensive end LaDarius Harris and the fumble recovered at the 2-yard line by senior defensive back Kelsey Douglas.
Smith’s run put USM up 14-0 at the break.
Along with the turnovers, the majority of USM’s 10 penalties for minus 94 yards were called against the Golden Eagles’ offense, disrupting drives.
USM finally put the game away in the fourth quarter, when Smith capped a 13-play, 80-yard march with a 20-yard touchdown run for a 21-0 lead. Smith gained 47 yards on five carries during the drive.
Adams’ second long catch set up a season-long 38-yard field goal by junior Parker Shaunfield to cap the scoring with 3:08 left to play.
USM will visit Louisiana Tech University (3-3, 1-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Ruston, La.The Bulldogs had an open week.