Southern Miss (3-3, 1-1) had a chance to assert itself as a contender in Conference USA, but failed to make a definitive statement, losing to Marshall (5-1, 3-0) 31-10.
USM’s offense got off to a good start, scoring the first points of the game on their second drive. Nick Mullens capped off an eight-play, 89-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown to Michael Thomas. Thomas ran a nice whip route, beating his defender easily to the outside and was able to walk into the end zone.
The Golden Eagles were playing well throughout the first half, but the momentum shifted after a huge mental error with under a minute left before halftime. After the USM defense stuffed Remi Watson for a loss of two, Marshall faced a 4th- and-3 and lined up to attempt a 40-yard field goal.
But Darian Yancey jumped offsides, giving the Thundering Herd a first down. Ryan Yurachek capped off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown catch from Chase Litton to give Marshall the 17-10 lead going into the half rather than only a field goal lead.
USM put together a solid drive on their first possession of the second half, reaching the Marshall 30-yard line. Head coach Todd Monken gambled on 4th-and-2 and paid the price as Tiquan Lang broke up the Mullens pass to Casey Martin.
With all the momentum on their side, Marshall extended their lead with an explosive play. Litton connected with Deandre Reaves for a 61-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the ensuing possession.
Mullens tried to throw the Golden Eagles back into the game, but the Marshall defense was suffocating all night. The Thundering Herd defense forced five turnovers, had four sacks, 15 pass breakups and hurried Mullens 17 times.
“They’re one of the premier teams in our league,” Monken said. “Athletically, on the back end (defensively) they are as good as anybody we’ve played and we’ve played some pretty good (defenses).”
Following the Reaves touchdown, USM’s next two drives ended with Mullens getting sacked and fumbling. The second of which was recovered by Jarquez Samuel in the end zone to give Marshall the 31-10 lead.
“I think we just made too many mistakes to win,” Mullens said. “Coming up on the road, especially against a good opponent, you just got to find a way to play the most perfect game you can. I think we led in almost every statistical category, but this game proves that doesn’t matter one bit.”
Each of the Golden Eagles’ second half possessions resulted in either an interception, fumble or turnover on downs. While it was clear the Marshall defense was responsible for most of the Golden Eagles’ misfortunes, the USM offense shoulders some blame as well.
The offensive line struggled to keep pressure off Mullens, and the receivers struggled to create separation at times. Mullens did not play perfectly by any means, but for all the pressure he faced and the small windows he was forced to throw into, his performance was definitely admirable. He finished with 314 yards, one touchdown and one interception while completing 29-of-58 pass attempts.
Although the offensive line struggled in pass protection, they were able to open some pretty big holes in the running game as Jalen Richard, Ito Smith and Justice Hayes all had carries where they were untouched until they reached the secondary. Richard led the way with 87 yards on 16 carries.
Thomas and Martin were once again favorite targets of Mullens in the passing game. Thomas eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the third week in a row with 105 yards and a touchdown while Martin had nine catches for 85 yards.
Though the Golden Eagles failed to pass the big road test, they showed that they could compete with any team in the conference once again. This game was closer than the final score indicated.
USM will look to get back into the win column in their homecoming game when they host UT-San Antonio Saturday at 6 p.m.