RUSTON, LA - Saturday night, the University of Southern Mississippi found itself down 11 points with a little more than four minutes to play, without its star running back and stinging from a pair of turnovers that cost it one touchdown and prevented another.
But like the first-quarter lightning display that held up Saturday's Conference USA football game at Joe Aillet Stadium for 50 minutes, quarterback Keon Howard, receiver Korey Robertson and a dogged Golden Eagle defense struck down Louisiana Tech University like a bolt of black-and-gold.
Howard and Robertson teamed on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds to play in regulation that led to a tie ballgame, and the pair connected again on a 25-yard yard score on the first possession of a second overtime as the Golden Eagles shocked the Bulldogs 34-27 in double overtime before 17,845.
"I've been in a few wild ones," USM coach Jay Hopson said, "but that might have taken the cake. It's right up there at the top.
"I can't tell you how proud of I am of the players and coaches. We just kept plugging, kept digging and found a way when it didn't look like there was a way."
Indeed. A rational person would have had to borrow his neighbor's fingers to count the ways that the outlook for USM on a night of pad-cracking intensity had turned bleak.
Howard threw an ill-advised pass that Tech safety Darryl Lewis turned into a 63-yard interception return late in the second quarter that gave the Bulldogs a 17-10 halftime lead
A play before, USM running back Ito Smith gained a yard on a second-down carry. It would be his last time he would touch the football this night
Smith, who had accumulated 88 yards all-purpose yards and converted a Howard pass into a 23-yard score for USM’s lone touchdown of the first half, sat out the second half and both overtimes with what Hopson called an issue with cramping
“He’s got some cramps, but he’ll be fine,” Hopson said.
Running back Tez Parks replaced Smith and stepped up with a stat line filled with personal bests: a team-high 79 yards rushing on 15 carries; five catches for 29 yards
But Parks also had the football punched from his grip attempting to score from the 1-yard line for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that would have given USM its first lead of the game
“It’s one of those deals where Tez came in and picked the load,” Hopson said. “So, we’ll keep plugging.
“I think that was good for our football team because … we’ve got a good football team with some other guys other than Ito who can make plays … (T)hat second half, I thought we moved the ball extremely well. We probably didn’t score as much as we wanted to, but we did a great job moving the ball.”
Following that fumble, Tech had the ball second-and-4 at its own 10-yard line. Quarterback J’Mar Smith hit Marion Watts on a crossing route that cornerback Curtis Mikell nearly broke up. Instead, Watts turned up the sideline and went 82 yards to the USM 8-yard line. Two plays later, Smith darted into the end zone on a 2-yard run and the Golden Eagles trailed 27-16 with 4:08 to play.
“They get (an 82-yard) pass that’s an hair away from being an interception or a (pass break-up) and they go down the sideline, then go all the way and score a touchdown,” Hopson said. “It was almost like in 30 seconds the game had changed completely.”
It had. And in the next 4 minutes, 27 seconds, USM was about change it again.
The Golden Eagles took the kickoff and drove 43 yards on 12 plays, converting two, third downs, and called on Parker Shaunfield for his fourth field goal of the game. The junior tied his career-long, drilling a 49-yard field goal to get USM within 27-19 with 1:23 to play.
With no option, USM set up for the on-side kick, and Briggs Bourgeois sent a hopper to right side that bounced once, twice, before disappearing into a scrum of bodies. Linebacker Paxton Schrimsher came out of the pile, and the Golden Eagles were still alive, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game.
But during the melee, safety Tarvarius Moore was whistled for a dead-ball, personal foul, moving the ball from Tech's 48-yard back to USM's 37, leaving the Golden Eagles 63 yards from the end zone and with less than 90 seconds to get there.
Parks ran for 11 yards and then Howard took off on a 15-yard run to the Tech 37. But as play stopped, a flag lay on the field near an area where the usual call is offensive holding. But not this night. Instead, defensive end Jaylon Ferguson was whistled for a personal foul (hands to the facemask) and the ball was moved to the 22-yard line.
Enter Robertson. On the next play, Howard found Robertson along the visitor sideline at about the 16-yard line, and the junior did the rest, breaking three tackles to get into the end zone, leaving USM down 27-25 with 31 seconds to play.
Needing a two-point conversion, Howard rolled right and found tight end Jay-Shawn Washington running parallel near the end line of the end zone and the receiver cradled the well-thrown ball to tie the game.
Tech drove out to the USM 47, where the Bulldogs tried a 64-yard field on the final snap of regulation. Jonathan Barnes' kick was on-line and reached the end zone, but was well under the crossbar and the teams headed to overtime.
Tech had the ball first, starting at the 25-yard line, but on second down, Moore streaked in front of a play-action pass, leaping to intercept the ball and end the Bulldogs' possession. Moore would finish as USM's leading tackler with 10 stops, the interception and another pass broken up.
All USM needed was a field goal to win, but on second down, Howard audibled from a running play to a pass, and he was intercepted by cornerback Amik Robertson.
To start the second overtime, USM had the football first, and on the first play, Howard threw to Korey Robertson in the back left corner of the end zone. Robertson outmuscled his defender to snag the ball that gave the Golden Eagles their first lead of the night.
"Yeah, Keon, he had a little bit of a change right there, so we'll adjust that — we talked about it after the game," Hopson said. "We can smile about it now, but we said no mas on that, we're not doing that any more.
"But again, I can't tell you how proud of I am of him, to go through that, because you know how tough that is. You feel like the weight of the world's on you, and then, all of a sudden, you respond and you come back and you throw a touchdown to win the ballgame. To me, that just says volumes about his character and the fight and determination that young man had. So, I'm just proud of him. I really am."
Tech had a chance to tie, but after one first down, USM's defense rose up and the Bulldogs lost 14 yards on a running play and a sack and Smith threw two incompletions.
That was the ballgame, as USM (5-2, 3-1 C-USA) won its third consecutive game and defeated Tech (3-4, 1-2) for a third consecutive season.
Howard completed 32-of-53 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns, all career bests. He also had 63 yards on 15 carries.
Despite the high number of passing attempts, USM's offense actually was balanced, with the Golden Eagles rushing for 190 yards on 45 carries.
Nine players caught at least one pass and eight caught at least two, with Robertson leading the way with a career night: nine catches, 127 yards. He caught two touchdowns in a game for a third time this season.
Shaunfield, who had made four field goals in six attempts through USM's first six games, hit a career-high four Saturday, including tries from 49 yards, 45 yards, 34 yards and 26 yards.
USM dominated Tech statistically. The Golden Eagles had 30 first downs to Tech's 15, outgained the Bulldogs 491 yards total offense to 355 yards.
Running 98 snaps to Tech's 68, the time of possession was heavily weighted toward USM: nearly 41 minutes to Tech's just more than 19 minutes. One USM drive in the third quarter that ended in a Shaunfield field goal went 73 yards on 18 plays and ate 8 minutes, 45 seconds of the game clock.
Tech running back Boston Scott ran for a game-high 106 yards and a score on 11 carries and Watts had five catches for 121 yards. But Smith completed just 11 passes in 28 attempts for 194 yards and was sacked twice.
"Guys kept plugging away, they kept digging," Hopson said. "They kept fighting and found a way.
"We had our opportunities and when we down there, we had some miscues that got us into a spot, but the thing about it is we didn't quit. We fought through it and found a way to win in the end."