Southern Miss showed they were capable of competing in Conference USA this season, but they made too many mistakes against Rice, losing 41-23.
Earlier in the week, Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken talked about what wins football games on a week-to-week basis. That formula included winning the turnover battle, having explosive plays and yet limiting the opponent’sexplosive plays.
While USM was right there with Rice with total yardage, first downs and time of possession, they lost in the all three of Monken’s keys to winning.
What ultimately held back the Golden Eagles was making huge mistakes in crucial moments. There were too many dropped passes on third downs, unnecessary penalties and ill-advised mental mistakes.
The biggest mistakes of the game came late in the second quarter. With just under three minutes left in the half,USM trailed 17-10, but Nick Mullens was intercepted by Garrett Fuhrman, leading to a Rice field goal shortly after.
USM started their next possession with 1:20 remaining in the half and marched down to the Rice 22-yard line with a chance to make it a one possession game with a field goal.
However, there was a bad snap on the field goal, forcing holder and punter Tyler Sarrazin to try to make something out of nothing with the time expiring. He ended up heaving the ball toward the end zone, but his pass was intercepted, ending the half.
“That game was right there for the taking,” Monken said. “We weren’t mature enough in a lot of areas to take advantage of it. Give them credit. They made the plays when they needed to make the plays. From field goal to PAT to kickoff to turnovers on our own end to some of the big third downs they got, some of the foolish penalties we had.”
Monken said the good news is these mistakes are correctable and they have to be corrected.
“It isn’t a matter of talent,” Monken said. “A lot of those things have nothing to do with talent. That has to do with discipline and playing good football. Good footballstill wins.”
Another aspect that hampered USM was their lack of balance offensively. They continued to struggle running the ball, averaging under two yards per carry. George Payne led the team with 40 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown.
The stat sheet shows that Mullens played well, but he missed a few easy throws on crucial third downs and the interception late in the fi rst half should haunt him. He completed 24-45 passing attempts for 283 yards and two touchdowns.
“If you see the drives that we score (on), we are very smooth, execute well and are mentally sharp,” Mullens said. “We have to work to get that mental consistency throughout the game. The only way you can do that is to put in extra work with your teammates. There is no way to get around it really.”
Defensively, Picasso Nelson Jr., and Dasman McCullum led the way. Nelson had an interception that he returned for 45 yards and McCullum made several big plays in the backfield.
Despite the big performances from Nelson and McCullum, the defense struggled as a whole, especially in the second half. There were too many third down plays where Rice stepped up and USM failed to execute.
The biggest third down conversion came late in the third quarter with Rice facing a 3rd and 13, leading 20-16. If USM made this stop, they would have had a great shot to win the game, but Driphus Jackson connected with Mario Hull for a 40-yard touchdown.
“The touchdown pass from Driphus to (Hull) gave us the momentum,” said Rice head coach David Bailiff. “From that point on we settled in offensively.”
Rice went on to score touchdowns on their next two possessions to put the game away as Jackson and the rest of their offense was clicking on all cylinders.
“I started off slow, I felt like we could have played a little bit better on offense, and I had a few bad throws,” Jackson said. “We made plays when we needed them and we took advantage of our opportunities. And I’m excited for the win.”
Southern Miss is going to have to clean up the mental mistakes and start winning the turnover battle if they want to win a few conference games this season. Their next opportunity to do that will be Saturday when they travel to take on Middle Tennessee State.