USM opens C-USA play with methodical 31-13 win over UTEP

USM opens C-USA play with methodical 31-13 win over UTEP

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ In a football game the University of Southern Mississippi couldn’t put away early Saturday evening, the Golden Eagles at least made durn sure a victory over the University of Texas-El Paso didn’t get away.

USM jumped out to a 14-0 lead before methodically working over the Miners for the next 3 ½ quarters on the way to a 31-13 decision in the Conference USA opener for both teams at M.M. Roberts Stadium.

“I thought our guys played well, and I thought we played fairly well in all three phases,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “But I think we can play better.

“It’s something we can build on. We talked about it at halftime, just build on it.”

And an announced 23,337 watched the Golden Eagles (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) do just that.

USM piled up more than 500 yards total offense for the second time this season, as junior quarterback Jack Abraham threw for 351 yards and a season-high three touchdowns and De’Michael Harris and Kevin Perkins led a ground game that chipped in 168 yards rushing.

After back-to-back games allowing an average of 509 yards total offense and 45.5 points over its last two games, USM’s defense turned downright stingy again, limiting the Miners to 13 points, 294 yards only four third-down conversions in 14 attempts.

Special teams had its moments as well, as Jordan Mitchell came up with his first career blocked punt and USM’s first swat since 2016 and Andrew Stein connected on a 38-yard field goal on the last play of the first half to answer a UTEP three-pointer from just 16 seconds earlier.

But like Stein’s 42-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, USM missed on some opportunities that would have pushed the game far out of reach.

The Golden Eagles were also fortunate at times that UTEP’s low-rated passing game lived up to its reputation, with wide-open Miners flat-out dropping a handful of throws and quarterbacks Kai Locksley and Brandon Jones simply misfiring.

“We kind of slowed down a little bit after that (early lead),” said Abraham, who completed 16 of his last 21 passes after a comparatively 3-of-7 slow start. “We probably left about two or three touchdowns out there that should have made it a lot bigger game.

“That’s just something we have to continue to work on and continue to work on the details. But that was definitely a good way to start.”

Indeed, and definitely a good way to start the ballgame.

After forcing a UTEP three-and-out, USM was staring at a third-and-14 thanks to a false start penalty and a sack of Abraham.

The Golden Eagles caught UTEP in a blitz, with receiver Quez Watkins running a shallow screen to the right and Harris having circled out of the backfield about 7 yards further downfield.

Instead of hitting Watkins, Abraham floated the ball to Harris, who had a blocker in front and a nearly wide-open field in front. Harris did the rest, turning on the jets and sprinting to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.

A great call, great play design and great execution gave USM a 7-0 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds, left in the first quarter.

The play was USM’s longest from scrimmage this season and the second-longest touchdown pass in Abraham’s career as a Golden Eagle.

“It was a double screen,” Abraham said. “We brought Quez in motion I was reading that and they guarded that, but then D’Mike was wide open. I think they respected Quez a little more on that play, and it opened up D’Mike.

“We worked on it a little bit throughout the week and had the expectation it would open up. I was leaning to throwing it to D’Mike on that one, considering the look they gave us. (USM offensive coordinator) Coach (Buster) Faulkner kind of gameplanned for that and we kind of had a feeling on third down when they showed that blitz look that it was going to open up.”

After USM’s defense forced another three-and-out, Mitchell came slicing in from the left side to block Mitchell Crawford’s punt, with the ball bounding out of bounds at the Miner’s 2-yard line.

Two plays later, Abraham faked a handoff, then rolled left, with Harris trailing. Abraham pitched the ball to Harris, who juked one defender and stepped into the end zone for a 14-0 USM lead.

For Harris, it was his third touchdown in the past two games.

UTEP (1-3, 0-1) cut the lead to 14-3 in the second quarter on Gavin Baechle’s 28-yard field goal, but two possessions later, Abraham hit 6-of-7 passes for 55 yards on a 78-yard drive that ended with a wide-open Mitchell hauling in a 22-yard touchdown pass for a 21-6 lead.

UTEP ate nearly the rest of the game clock on a drive that resulted in a second Baechle’s second field goal of the game, a 46-yarder that cut the deficit to 21-6 and appeared to be sending UTEP into halftime on a high note.

But Baechle’s squib kick went only 14 yards with defensive back Malik Shorts recovering at the UTEP 49. Abraham quickly found Tim Jones for 29 yards, and Stein’s 38-yarder sailed ‘twixt the uprights with no time on the game clock.

USM had the ball to open the second half, but had to punt, and on the Miners’ first play Locksley sprinted through the middle of the Golden Eagles, veered to the left and ran away to a 63-yard touchdown that got UTEP back within nine points, 24-13, with nearly the entire second half still to be played.

But USM and Abraham answered immediately.

The junior went 5-for-5 for 56 yards on a 10-play, 92-yard drive that culminated on Abraham’s 6-yard scoring pass to Jaylond Adams.

Those were the game’s final points, UTEP managed a 51-yard drive that ate up more than half of the nine minutes left in the third quarter, but were forced to eventually punt.

In the fourth quarter, USM clamped down on the Miners, holding them to 23 yards on 11 snaps. The Golden Eagles had the ball on offense for 10:48 of the 15-minute final quarter.

Locksley paced the UTEP offense rushing for a game-high 114 yards and a score on 12 carries. But no other Miner had more than 8 yards rushing, and the passing game produced 168 yards and four sacks.

“We knew they liked the running game, so we wanted to get them out of their rhythm,” defensive lineman Eriq Kitchen said. “We knew if they started passing that we were going to win.”

For USM, Adams finished with a game-high five catches and a score. Mitchell had four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Watkins had two catches for 97 yards, including a 61-yard grab, and Jones had two catches for 29 yards.

Harris not only had two catches for 80 yards, he netted 62 yards and a touchdown rushing. Kevin Perkins led the Golden Eagles with 65 yards rushing on 11 carries.

USM turned the ball over once and did not generate a takeaway. But the Golden Eagles did convert 9-of-14 third-down opportunities and scored all three times it reached the red zone (two touchdowns, field goal).

The Golden Eagles have an open week before welcoming the University of North Texas to Hattiesburg at 6 p.m. on Oct. 12.

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