RUSTON, La. (WDAM) - One week after turning in one of its most complete football performances of the season, the University of Southern Mississippi came up with arguably its most disappointing Saturday afternoon at Joe Aillet Stadium.
The Golden Eagles squandered a 14-point, first-quarter edge, then saw a handful of other leads gradually fade in the face of their own miscues and inefficiencies in a 45-30 loss to the Bulldogs before an announced 23,419.
USM saw its top two running backs sidelined with injuries, saw its quarterback throw a career-high four interceptions, including a pick-six and another that cost USM late points in the red zone, and a bad punt snap that set up the Bulldogs’ go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
“We certainly struggled there in the second half, no question about that,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “But that’s football.
“We’ll go back, correct a few things and, hopefully, be better after that.”
Tech (6-1, 3-0 Conference USA) won its sixth consecutive game by snapping a four-game losing streak against USM (4-3, 2-1).
The Bulldogs became the lone unbeaten in C-USA’s West Division, clinching bowl eligibility with their sixth consecutive victory. USM slipped a game behind Tech in the West standings.
“It’s tough,” said USM quarterback Jack Abraham, who threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted four times, including three by cornerback Akim Robertson.
“This is a game of adversity, and the only thing we can do is come out next week and continue to work hard.”
USM came out firing, riding the momentum of last week’s victory over the University of North Texas.
D’Michael Harris returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a 7-0 USM lead. It was the first kickoff return in Harris’ career and the third by a Golden Eagle this season, breaking the previous mark of two in one year.
After forcing a punt from Tech, USM went 95 yards in 14 plays, scoring on a 15-yard pass to tight end Jay Ladner. It was Ladner’s second career catch, and both have gone for touchdowns.
But after spotting USM a 14-0 lead, Tech then discovered the Golden Eagles couldn’t cover a soul Saturday afternoon.
Even without one of his top targets, Adrian Hardy, sidelined by injury, Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith hit 14-of-21 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown.
Eight passes went to Malik Stanley for 212 yards and a touchdown. Stanley became the fifth player ever to record a 200-yard receiving day against the Golden Eagles. His yardage is the second-most, trailing only a 362-yard receiving game by San Diego State’s Tom Nettles in 1968.
Stanley’s 5-yard TD catch late in the first quarter got Tech within 14-7, and after Robertson’s first interception set up the Bulldogs at USM’s 30-yard line, running back Justin Henderson covered the distance on the first play, tying the score, 14-14.
Shortly after, Harris went to the sidelines for good after catching a short pass and turning into a staggering hit from Robertson.
Abraham’s career-long 37-yard scoring run put USM back ahead 21-14 before Bailey Hale booted a 50-yard field goal to get Tech within 21-17.
But USM’s Andrew Stein kicked field goals of 28 yards and 46 yards to push USM’s lead back to 10 points with just 2 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half.
But that was more than enough time for Smith and the Bulldogs to move downfield, including completions of 32 yards and 37 yards to Stanley. Henderson pounded across from 2 yards out for his second score as the Bulldogs pulled within 27-24 at halftime.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but late in the period, a bad snap on a punt set up a short field for Tech. Smith converted fourth-and-1 to set up first-and-goal, then extended the ball across while leaping to the top of the pile.
That put Tech ahead for the first time, 31-27.
USM drove down and appeared to be poised to regain the lead, but Abraham forced a pass into the end zone that Robertson picked off.
On the ensuing possession, Smith found Griffin Hebert for 70 yards, setting up Bobby Holly’s eventual 1-yard scoring run that boosted Tech’s lead to 38-27.
Stein’s 41-yard field goal got USM back within 38-30 with 3:36 to play, but USM’s last real chance was ruined when safety Ezekiel Barnett returned Abraham’s third interception 30 yards for a score.