HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ The last time the University of Southern Mississippi took the football field, the Golden Eagles played poorly enough in a season-opening loss to the University of South Alabama that eventually cost them their coach.
While interim head coach Scotty Walden isn’t expected to be going anywhere, Saturday’s 31-30 loss to visiting Louisiana Tech University may have been even harder to take.
“Most definitely,” USM senior strong safety Malik Shorts said. "At one point we were up 27-10, and we should have been able to keep the pedal to the metal all the way to the finish.
“This really left a bad taste in our mouths.”
In the season opener, South Alabama built a lead it never lost on its way to an 11-point victory. Four days later, Coach Jay Hopson resigned, with Walden tapped as interim head coach.
Saturday, in the Conference USA opener for both teams, USM allowed a 17-point lead to dissipate over the final 20 ½ minutes, with the game-winning play simply a gut-punch for the Golden Eagles.
Trailing by six points and facing fourth-and-goal from USM’s 4-yard line, Tech quarterback Luke Anthony’s pass to Griffin Herbert in the back of M.M. Roberts Stadium north end zone initially was ruled out-of-bounds with 14 seconds to play, sending the Golden Eagles spilling on to the field in front of their bench in celebration.
“I just knew he was out,” Shorts said. “I just knew he couldn’t have caught that and been in.”
But the stadium replay board appeared to show Hebert getting a foot down just inches from the end line, and upon review, replay officials agreed.
Hebert was awarded the touchdown, place-kicker Jacob Barnes booted the extra point and Tech (1-0,1-0 C-USA) pulled out a win in its first game of the 2020 season.
“I felt good about this game, I did,” Walden said. “We just couldn’t find a way to finish it.”
USM left a potential four points on the field in the first half that proved costly in the end.
On its initial drive, USM faced a fourth-and-7 at the Louisiana Tech 24-yard line. Instead of trying a 41-yard field goal, Walden left the offense on the field.
Jack Abrham’s fourth-down pass picked up only 3 yards and USM turned the ball over on downs.
Trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter, USM’s running back Kevin Perkins scored on a 1-yard run. USM eschewed the extra-point kick, opting to try a 2-point conversion. A conversion run came up far short.
“We’re going to play aggressively,” Walden said, "especially if we’re in a rhythm.
“Hindsight is 20-20. If we win the game, we’re not even talking about this.”
But USM didn’t win, despite the Golden Eagles coming out with the same energy and enthusiasm as their new head coach.
“it was as good as I’ve ever been around,” USM senior quarterback Jack Abraham said. “It was great.”
As was senior wide receiver Tim Jones, who had eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, including a personal-long, 74-yard scoring play. The yardage was a personal-best as Jones logged the first, multiple-touchdown game of his career.
Jones exited the game with what Walden described as a “lower-body, soft-tissue injury” with about 8 minutes left to play in the third quarter.
“That definitely hurt,” said Abraham, who threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns. “Not having hm out there was a big difference.”
That coincided with the Bulldogs' rally, which outscored USM 21-3 down the stretch, with Anthony throwing for all three Tech touchdowns in that stretch.
Anthony, who split time with Aaron Allen behind center, threw for 149 yards and three scores.
“We played hard, but at this level, it’s not good enough to just play hard,” Walden said. “We just didn’t execute at a high enough level.”