The University of Southern Mississippi simply could not overcome the University of Tennessee Saturday night at Neyland Stadium in large part because it could not get past itself.
The Golden Eagles allowed a46-yard kickoff return that set up the Volunteers’ first touchdown, followed by a pair of third-quarter turnovers by USM sophomore quarterback Keon Howard that gave Tennessee two, short-field touchdowns that all-but decided a 24-10 victory for the Vols.
“The turnovers really killed us right there,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “That was a really tough thing for us to overcome.”
USM (5-4) lost consecutive games for the first time this season. Tennessee (4-5) snapped a four-game losing streak by winning for first time since September.
The Golden Eagles held Tennessee to 210 yards in their homecoming game, held the ball longer on offense and pretty much stuffed the Vols on third downs, with Tennessee converting just 2-of-13 opportunities.
But the Vols’ three touchdown drives covered a total of 88 yards. Aside from a 49-yard drive to open the game, and 19-yard and 20-yard scoring drives in the third quarter following turnovers, Tennessee managed just 122 yards and three points against the Golden Eagles.
“Thought we played a whale of a ballgame, defensively,” Hopson said. “It’s not too often that you hold a (Southeastern Conference) team to (just more than) 200 yards on their homecoming.”
But 95,551 watched as the Vols did just enough with USM’s help to take down the Golden Eagles for the sixth time in six meetings between the two programs.
The Golden Eagles did not help themselves with 14 penalties for minus 120 yards, while the Vols wound up not being whistled for an infraction until the 11:26 mark of the third quarter. Tennessee wound up getting flagged just three times for minus 29 yards.
“It’s not going to do me any good to even talk about it,” Hopson said. “You were at the game. Everybody was at the game, so I’m not even going to talk about it.
“It is what it is.”
Tennessee took a 7-0 lead after a 46-yard kickoff return by senior Evan Berry to the USM 49-yard line. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano capped the nine-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
USM cut the lead to 7-3 after Howard’s 70-yard pass to junior Korey Robertson (eight catches, 122 yards) set up a 27-yard field goal by junior Parker Shaunfield. It was Shaunfield’s ninth consecutive field goal over USM’s past four games.
Tennessee came up with its longest drive of the game _ 12 plays 68 yards _ to set up a 38-yard field goal by back-up kicker Aaron Medley that gave the Vols a 10-3 halftime lead.
Howard, who completed 7-of-22 passes Saturday night for 100 yards, was intercepted by senior cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who returned it 19 yards to USM’s 20. One play later, junior running back John Kelly weaved his way 20 yards through the USM defense for a 17-3 Tennessee lead.
On the next series, Howard was caught stepping up to the front of the packet, and the ball was stripped from his hand and recovered by the Vols on the USM 19-yard line.
USM held Tennessee to a field goal by Medley, but USM was whistled for a personal foul for jumping off the ground on the field-goal try. Hopson went ballistic, rushing the field to complain and was whistled for another sportsman-like call.
By the time the dust settled, Tennessee was at the USM 3-yard line, and Kelly scored on the next play to give Tennessee a 24-3 lead.
Junior Kwadra Griggs relieved Howard with just more than 10 minutes to play and led USM 95 yards for a touchdown he capped with a 1-yard run with 6:45 to play.
But USM’s last best chance came to an end after the Golden Eagles drove to a fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 39-yard line, where Griggs was stopped for no gain.
Griggs, who completed 6-of-11 passes for 61 yards, likely will get the start Saturday when USM travels to Rice University, Hopson said