DENTON, Texas (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi football team found its running game and its poise Saturday night at Apogee Stadium.
When mixed in with some early-game gifts from their host, the Golden Eagles were able to find their first win of the 2020 football season as well
True freshman Frank Gore Jr. rushed for a career-best 130 yards on 23 carries, including his first touchdown run as a Golden Eagle, and oft-injured sophomore Darius Maberry ran for 55 yards and the first two scores of his college career as USM outlasted the University of North Texas, 41-31.
The win not only snapped a season-opening, three-game skid, but gave interim head coach Scotty Walden his first victory at USM after opening his tenure with a pair of brutal losses.
Like in Walden’s first two games, USM held a two-score lead Saturday. The early 17-3 edge emerged in large part courtesy of short fields created by a botched kickoff and then a lost fumble on the part of the Mean Green.
But unlike those first two games, the Golden Eagles declined to fall apart slowly as they did against Louisiana Tech University or completely collapse in the embarrassment delivered against Tulane University.
Saturday, most every time North Texas tried to reel USM in, the Golden Eagles pushed back, building a 17-point cushion in the second half that they rode to the final tick of the clock.
The result: USM (1-3, 1-1 Conference USA) evened its conference record while holding the Mean Green (1-2, 0-1) to their fewest yards and points of the season.
North Texas came in averaging 619 yards total offense and 46 points a game after breaking even against Houston Baptist University and Southern Methodist University.
Saturday, the Mean Green piled up a healthy 483 yards of offense, but rushed for 144 yards against a defense that had been allowing an average 246 yards rushing per game.
North Texas hurt itself with three lost fumbles, includung a muffed punt as well as a mishandled pooch kickoff.
Thing was, USM was able to take advantage and put points on the scoreboard.
North Texas led 3-0 after the opening possession of the game on Ethan Mooney’s 49-yard field goal.
USM answered on its first possession of the game, with quarterback Jack Abraham finding DeMarcus Jones with a 22-yard touchdown pass.
The Mean Green flubbed away the kickoff, with USM’s Malik Shorts recovering at the North Texas 24-yard line. Three plays, later Gore would score from 11 yards out and USM led 14-3.
On the ensuing possession, North Texas quarterback Austin Aune was sacked by Dominic Quewon, with USM linebacker T.Q. Newsome recovering at the Mean Green 20-yard line.
That set up a 31-yard field goal by Briggs Bourgeois that left USM up 17-3 halfway through the first quarter.
For the rest of the night, the Mean Green found itself in chase mode.
A goal-line stand stopped a UNT threat at the 6-yard line, and after another North Texas fumble, Bourgeois missed a 34-yard field goal attempt.
The Mean Green then mounted a 14-play, 80-yard drive that cut the lead to 17-10.
The score stayed that way until Bourgeois connected on a 46-yard field goal with 44 seconds left in the first half for 20-10 halftime lead.
USM pushed the lead to 27-10 on the opening possession of the second half when Abraham found Jason Brownlee behind the secondary with a 68-yard scoring pass.
North Texas came back to make it 27-17 on Aune’s 17-yard pass to Jaelon Darden, but Maberry stretched over the goal line on a 4-yard run early in the fourth quarter to push the lead back to 17 points at 34-17.
Again, the Mean Green struck, with running back DeAndre Torrey ripping off a 34-yard run up the middle to cut the lead back to 34-24.
But USM answered with arguably its best drive of the evening, moving 75 yards in 12 plays, with Maberry scoring on a nifty 14-yard run. The march ate nearly 7 minutes of fourth-quarter clock and put USM up 41-24.
North Texas needed just three plays to get back within 10 points, with Aune throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Simpson.
But the Golden Eagles held the ball for 4:44, giving it back to the Mean Green with just 33 seconds to play.
Gore and Maberry sparked a running game that netted 202 yards Saturday. The last time USM topped 200 yards rushing came last season in a 36-17 victory over the University of Texas-San Antonio, when the Golden Eagles rushed for 206 yards.
That also was the Golden Eagles last win until Saturday.
Abraham completed 16-of-30 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
Brownlee hauled in four catches for 110 yards to log his first 100-yard game for USM. Former Oak Grove standout Brandon Hayes also had four catches for 41 yards and Jones had two grabs 43 yards.
Aune hit 28-of-47 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns. Darden caught 13 passes for 104 yards and Simpson had five catches 113 yards.
Torrey rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries and Stiggers had 54 yards n 13 carries.
USM will return home to welcome Florida Atlantic University to Hattiesburg Saturday.