Eagles drop season-opener 34-16 versus Bulldogs
Southern Miss had all the ingredients to pull off the upset against Mississippi State, but in the end they just could not put everything together.
Head coach Todd Monken and company had a great game plan coming in, but things did not bounce USM’s way when they needed it the most.
USM’s offense looked sharp both passing and rushing throughout the game. That especially goes for Nick Mullens, who started off the game 10 of 14 for 94 yards and a TD. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey helped Mullens get into rhythm early with well-timed screens and bubble passes and had over nine different receivers with a catch.
Mullens on fire early, combined with an up-tempo offense on par with the Oregon Ducks, helped keep MSU off balance and on their heels in the first half.
“Obviously you want to start fast and I think we did a real good job of that,” Mullens said. “We used some tempo early to put some pressure on them and it obviously helped our confidence level.”
However, seven penalties were drive-killers when USM was driving the ball. The biggest play of the night was probably the one that determined the game as it cost USM points.
In the second quarter, Southern Miss converted on a long double-reverse pass to get down to the Mississippi State one-yard line. However, the Golden Eagles were stuffed on all four downs and turned it over to MSU on the one.
“I knew I was going to be aggressive tonight and we weren’t going to hold any bullets back and it’s disappointing,” Monken said. “But if we get it down on the one again I’ll go for it again, I’m not kicking it and I don’t care who knows it.”
If USM converted, they could have led going into halftime 17-14; however, they trailed 14-10. Coming out of halftime, the Golden Eagles looked gassed and looked for a spark that never came. Mississippi State leaned on Dak Prescott in the second half and used his legs as well as his arm to build a comfortable lead.
As for USM, they drove down the field and piled up over 400 yards of total offense, but Mississippi State’s red zone defense held strong and forced field goals the rest of the game.
A really telling stat was the third down conversions for both teams. Southern Miss was an abysmal 4-of-17 while Mississippi State used a veteran poise to go 8-of-14 on third downs.
It was difficult for the USM defense to catch rest in the second half when the Bulldogs would sustain long drives with third down conversion after third down conversion. With each conversion, the defense not only grew more tired, but more mentally drained from being on the field for so long.
“We had a lot of new players in some new positions they haven’t played before,” senior linebacker Brian Anderson said. “It’s just going to take some time for everyone to get used to their position. Once everyone has practiced a little more we will be a lot better on the field together.”
Monken agreed and gave Mississippi State their due credit, but also said USM was very much in the game.
“They have a very good football team,” said Monken. “We did some things to win the game, but we also did things to not win the game and those are things we have to correct.”
Despite the loss, there were obvious improvements in every facet of the game for the Golden Eagles. Plays were quicker coming in from the coaches and the players played with confidence, which was missing from past Southern Miss teams.
Southern Miss had two leads on the night. They scored first with a field goal and then a touchdown pass from quarterback Nick Mullens.
Also, Monken and the coaching staff seemed to emphasize running the ball in the off-season as they ran the ball 36 times for a 102 yards. Ito Smith seemed to have the hot hand as he got most of the rushes in the second half and broke a 44-yard run in the third quarter.
Another thing that impressed Monken and the players was the outstanding fan support. Total attendance at M.M. Roberts Stadium was 36, 641, a new stadium record.
Southern Miss started off their season with a loss, but fans that were at the game saw what we all saw. They saw that the Golden Eagles have vastly improved and are on their way to making some serious noise in Conference USA.