HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - On its first two possessions Saturday afternoon at M.M. Roberts Stadium, the University of Southern Mississippi drove the football deep into Rice University territory.
Both times, the Golden Eagles came up empty, failing to convert a fourth-and-2 at the Owls' 15-yard line on a dropped pass, then saw the second drive end at the Rice 25 on a Jack Abraham interception
USM’s afternoon only got worse from there.
Rice receiver Austin Trammel caught three of quarterback Mike Collins' four touchdown passes while USM’s offense sputtered through the better part of three quarters in a 30-6 Conference USA loss.
“We’re just not efficient enough, yet,” said USM interim head coach Tim Billings. “We have got to keep getting better. We have to get more efficient on both sides of the ball.”
Not only did the Golden Eagles lose the game, they lost Abraham for the rest of the day late in the second quarter when he took a hard lick at the end of a quarterback keeper.
With backup Tate Whatley unavailable after being injured on USM’s last offensive play at Liberty University the week before, USM played the rest of the game with Trey Lowe at the helm of the offense.
“We had our opportunities early,” Billings said, "but we never gained momentum.
“We went to our third-string quarterback and that really limited what we could do.”
Lowe completed 5-of-6 passes for 57 yards. Three of those completions for 32 yards came right before the end of the first half and set up USM’s second field goal of the game.
But USM had the ball on only three possessions in the second half, netting 54 yards total offense. The fourth quarter was the worst: one possession, six yards. In the final 15 minutes of the game, Rice had the football for 13 minutes, 11 seconds.
All told, USM (1-5, 1-2 C-USA) was held to a season-low 269 yards total offense and six points on two field goals.
It marked the first time the Golden Eagles had not scored a touchdown in a game since a 52-12 loss at the University of Alabama in 2014.
The game may have been a reflection of a week unlike any other in USM football annals.
Three days after missing the Liberty game while quarantined because of COVID-19, interim head football coach Scotty Walden abruptly quit to become head football coach at a Football Championship Subdivision program, Austin Peay State University.
Billings, who had stepped into Walden’s role at Liberty, was appointed interim for the rest of the season, and Walden’s departure also led to some shifting of coaching responsibilities within the staff.
Hurricane Zeta then threw a monkey wrench into the practice schedule. Abraham, who had missed the Liberty game while recovering from COVID-19, and his teammates had only two outdoor sessions because of the rain.
“With every change and everything that has happened, you could use excuses, but you have the next guy up and he has to be prepared and ready to play,” Billings said. "That was part of the issue (Saturday). We scored six points offensively because we had a lot of issues and changes.
“Defensively, we gave up some big plays early. I thought we played a lot better in the second half, but we’re still not efficient enough.”
Rice (1-1, 1-1), playing just its second game of the season because of the pandemic, rolled up 412 yards total offense, with 228 yards coming in a first half that saw the Owls grab control with a 23-6 halftime lead.
Collins found Trammell on scoring passes of 72 yards and 13 yards, and hit Jake Bailey with a 25-yard touchdown pass. Collin Riccitelli, who missed one of his three extra-point attempts, hit a 21- yard field goal.
Briggs Bourgeois had field goals of 45 yards and 26 yards in the second quarter.
The only score in the second half came on Collins and Trammell’s third connection, a 14-yard touchdown pass with 6:47 left in the game.
USM hurt itself with a pair of lost fumbles and an interception, while getting only one takeaway itself.
While the Golden Eagles did a better job of keeping the Rice offense off the field in the second half, it could not get the Owls unit off the field. Rice converted 9-of-15 third-down opportunities, and wound up controlling the ball for nearly 37 minutes of the game, including 22 minutes, 9 seconds, over the final two quarters.
Abraham completed 12-of-17 passes for 112 yards with an interception.
Freshman Frank Gore Jr, rushed for 71 yards on 11 carries. But Abraham was the next-leading rusher with 18 yards on three carries, as USM managed just 100 yards rushing as a team.
Jason Brownlee caught five passes for 35. Tim Jones returned to the field for the first time since being injured on Sept. 26, and caught three passes for 33 yards.
Collins also completed 12-of-17 passes. His went for 273 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Rice running Juma Otoviano had a game-high 111 yards rushing on 25 carries, while Khalan Griffin added 41 yards on 12 carries.
Trammell turned in a career day, with seven catches for 143 yards and three scores.
USM will return to M.M. Roberts Stadium at 2 p.m. Saturday to welcome the University of North Alabama to Hattiesburg.