Shortly after the University of Southern Mississippi’s 24-10 loss Saturday night at the University of Tennessee, USM coach Jay Hopson acknowledged a change likely was forthcoming at quarterback for the Golden Eagles.
“That’s probably the decision that I’m going to make,” Hopson said. “Leaving here, as I’m sitting right here, he’ll probably be the starter next week. But, like anything, I’ll sleep on it, wake up in the morning and re-evaluate the film.”
Monday, Hopson made it made it quasi-official: junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs will return behind center when the Golden Eagles (5-4, 3-2 Conference USA) visit Rice University at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Rice Stadium.
“I said this (Saturday night), he’ll probably be our starter this week … (and) (l)ooking at the game, having Kwadra back healthy is probably who we’ll go with.
“I will still evaluate through the week just to make sure I don’t do anything premature. That’s kind of where my mind is right now. We’ll watch in practice.”
Griggs and sophomore Keon Howard, who had dueled through the spring and summer to replace graduated starter Nick Mullens, took that competition into the first game of the season, with Howard starting against the University of Kentucky and Griggs playing the second half.
Griggs then started the next three games against Southern University, University of Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas University before hurting his non-throwing hand in USM’s loss to the Mean Green.
Howard started the next five games, though Griggs relieved him in each of USM’s last two games, losses to the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Saturday against Tennessee.
Griggs entered Saturday in the fourth quarter and led USM to its lone touchdown, a 95-yard drive that he capped with a 1-yard sneak. Griggs completed 6-of-11 passes for 61 yards and ran seven times for 10 yards.
“I was pleased with what Kwadra did when he got in,” Hopson said. “He did a good job of moving the team.”
Howard, who had a streak of four, consecutive games with at least 200 yards passing, completed 7-of-22 passes for 100 yards Saturday. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble that set up Tennessee touchdown drives of 20 yards and 19 yards.
“The one thing that we could not afford to do in that game was turn the ball over and give (Tennessee) short fields,” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “And that’s exactly what we did, twice, and that was pretty much the difference in the game.”
Hopson said Griggs had lost his starting job because he was injured, not because of his play.
“He didn’t lose the job when he was injured,” Hopson said. “He was injured … I felt after that Kentucky game that Kwadra won the start, and then he got hurt. Then, Keon took advantage of his opportunity.”
Hopson said the cast, which had been reduced the past two weeks, was removed Sunday.
“One good thing with that is he’s back to 100 percent healthy now,” Hopson said. “Now, he’s back healthy, ready to roll and feeling 100 percent.
“We had the cast where it was covering up the (first) three fingers, which was making it hard for him to catch snaps. There’s certain things you have to look at, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t catch the snap from center.”
Hopson said he was not disappointed in what Howard had been able to do the past five weeks.
“Keon did a lot of good things,” Hopson said. “He came in and look at the (University of Texas-San Antonio), (University of Texas-) El Paso, Louisiana Tech (University) games,” Hopson said. “Big wins and big plays. Keon didn’t play that bad Saturday. There were a lot of positives that he had. I believe Keon’s doing a good job.
“… Keon did some good things, not only running the ball but making plays. Sometimes the quarterback gets too much credit and too much of the blame. That’s the reality of football, but I couldn’t be happier with the two young men. They keep competing and keep their heads up. They’re both class acts through and through. We’re blessed they’re Golden Eagles. They always pull for each other. They are two, good outstanding young men and we’re just pleased to have them.”
USM players of the week for the Tennessee game included:
Offense - Junior receiver Korey Robertson, who had eight catches for 122 yards, including a 70-yard catch that set up a second-quarter field goal.
It marked the third consecutive week Robertson won the honor and fourth time this season.
“The bottom line is, if you earn it, you earn it,” Hopson said. “Korey went up there and gave us the big catch and kind of gave us some juice at the end of the first half … He’s physical with the football, blocked well and had a complete football game.”
Defense - Senior nickel back Kelsey Douglas, who led USM with six tackles (four solos), including a tackle for loss.
“Played his best game of the year,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “Very physical at the point of attack, made some big-time plays, made some big-time tackles. We definitely as a staff thought he played his best game of the year.”
Special teams - Freshman punter Zac Everett, who averaged 45.8 yards on eight punts. He had a long punt of 60 yards and placed five inside Tennessee’s 20-yard line.
“I thought he kicked the ball really well,” Hopson said.
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