Southern Miss drops season opener to Kentucky, 24-17

Wildcat Junior TE C.J. Conrad (87) scored in the mist of two USM players. Photo: Kenyatta S. Ross

After a 44-35 victory against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington to start the 2016 season, the Southern Miss football team could not repeat its success against the Wildcats, losing 24-17 in a game notable for turnovers and a change at quarterback.

“Tough loss, hard fought loss,” said Head Coach Jay Hopson. “I felt like we played pretty well and just didn’t execute on some things.”

Both teams came out playing tough defense in the first quarter. Southern Miss forced three punts and a fumble on Kentucky’s first four possessions, while the Wildcats forced the Golden Eagles to punt on their first three possessions and recovered a fumble on their fourth possession in the quarter.

Kentucky got on the scoreboard first with an eight-yard rushing touchdown by quarterback Stephen Johnson, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 lead at the beginning of the second quarter. The Golden Eagles offense responded to that touchdown with a 14-play, 82- yard drive, but the team stalled in the red zone and had to settle for a 22-yard field goal. Johnson 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Conrad with 7:01 left in the second quarter helped to give the Wildcats a 14-3 advantage heading into halftime.

Looking for a way get the offense going after gaining only 87 yards through the air in the first half, Hopson made a change at quarterback, replacing Keon Howard with Kwadra Griggs starting with the last play of the first half and during the entire second half.

“I just got my mind prepared,” Griggs said. “I know coach [Hopson] was going to put me in the best situation possible.”

Griggs promptly lead the team down the field 85-yards on six plays on their first offensive drive in the third quarter. Griggs capped the drive off with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Korey Robertson and cut into Kentucky’s lead, 14-10.

As the third quarter progressed, Kentucky was able to gain some separation on the Golden Eagles score wise, starting with a 41-yard field goal by kicker Alan MacGinnis following a failed fake punt by Southern Miss with 5:30 left in the quarter. The field goal was immediately followed by a 20- yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Kentucky linebacker Denzil Ware on the next Southern Miss drive, giving the Wildcats a 24-10 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

Despite scoring the only points of the fourth quarter for either team after another yard touchdown pass from Griggs to Robertson with 12:42 left in the game, the Golden Eagles couldn’t capitalize. Kentucky recovered an Ito Smith fumble on the next Southern Miss offensive possession and held on the rest of the way defensively to earn the victory.

“We felt like were ready to make a run in the fourth quarter,” Hopson said. “They [Kentucky] played tough football.”

Offensively, the Golden Eagles outgained the Wildcats offense 364 yards to 254 yards, but three lost fumbles gave the Wildcats good field position during key moments of the game. The Kentucky defense also kept running back Ito Smith in check, holding the senior to just 37 yards on 16 carries.

After completing 15-of-26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of the contest, Coach Hopson indicated at his press conference on Monday that Griggs would be the starting quarterback for their next contest against Southern University.

“We’re probably going to start with Kwadra this week,” Hopson said. “He really had an outstanding second half.”

The Golden Eagles will attempt to get their first win of the season next Saturday when they host the Southern University Jaguars at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.