Sometimes, miracles are only seconds away.
“Our guys never quit, we got a lot of character on our team,” Monken said. “We have good players.”
Southern Miss traveled to Nebraska for the third time in as many years, falling 36-28 against the Cornhuskers, despite showing a valiant effort in the final moments. USM fell to 1-5 all-time against Nebraska, but this game was much closer than the score indicated.
“I love the way our guys competed, we’ve got a good group of guys in there,” Monken said. “We’ve got the right guys moving forward.”
Southern Miss struggled out of the gate both offensively and defensively, giving way to Cornhusker quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. gong 4-of-4 on the opening drive and an early score to make the game 7-0. There was no answer for the Golden Eagles, but there were numerous injuries on the defensive side of the ball coming into the game.
There was no Anthony Swain at linebacker, and also both junior college safety transfers Deshadrick Truly and Devonta Foster were both out. That gave way for players such as Terrick Wright, Xavier Thigpen and Picasso Nelson Jr. to get extended playing time.
The Golden Eagles just could not get the offense going in the first half. Four of the seven Southern Miss drives in the first half ended in punts, one ended in a fumble and the only points they could have produced, Parker Shaunfield botched the field goal. Shaunfield finished going 0-for-2 in the game on field goals, missing from 33 and 44 yards out.
“This is a game of emotions,” Monken said. “At halftime we were lucky to be where we were, to be real honest. They dominated the first half.”
Going into halftime, Southern Miss was down 22-0 with no answers. Nick Mullens was not having a great game, the running game was not producing and coach Monken was just looking for an answer. But when the Golden Eagles came out of halftime, they came out with a ferocity.
“Early in the game we didn’t put our best foot forward,” Monken said. “Really what kept us in the game was holding them to field goals and missed opportunities.”
The defense held Nebraska to only 12 points in the second quarter, all field goals. In the second half especially, the Golden Eagles flexed their muscles as they held Nebraska only seven points in each of the final two quarters.
The star of the game for the defense was defensive back D’Nerius Antoine. Antoine finished the game with a team-high eight tackles, but it was his crucial interception on the second play of the third quarter that started the Southern Miss comeback.
Antoine caught a tipped ball and took it all the way down to the NEB ten yard line, but a penalty brought them back 15 yards. Despite the penalty, it only took Southern Miss two plays for Ito Smith to score his only rushing touchdown of the game from 17 yards out. That play began the spark that the Golden Eagles needed to stay in the game.
Quarterback Nick Mullens had a huge game leading the effort, going 26-41 for a whopping 447 yards and two touchdowns. The stat that actually does jump out though, is that he threw no interceptions.
“He’s accurate, he’s tough, he’s intelligent and he’s everything we want at quarterback. There are things we could have done earlier in the game to help him.” – Monken
The effort from Mullens was not in vain, as Southern Miss held Nebraska to five field goals in the first half. In the second half, the Golden Eagles kept the game close enough for one last chance for USM, 36-28.
After a Southern Miss kickoff, the Cornhuskers started their drive at their own 29 yard line. Nebraska marched down the field to the USM 8 with a fourth and goal upcoming to put the game away by extending their lead 11 points with one minute remaining. Southern Miss fortunately blocked the field goal attempt from Drew Brown, to set themselves for a miracle in the last 30 seconds of the game.
Nick Mullens and the offense started at their own 20 yard line, with 29 seconds left to go 80 yards and score eight points to send the game into overtime. Southern Miss burned all three of their timeouts on previous drives, so time was of a crucial essence.
Mullens hit Casey Martin down the middle of the field for 19 yards, who fell down quickly to preserve time. Then, Martin again received the pass from Mullens for 21 yards down to the Nebraska 40 yard line, with less than 20 seconds left.
On the final play of the game, Mullens stepped back to try and find a receiver to hopefully get inside of Hail Mary range. Transfer lineman Andrew Peterson was blown up at the right tackle spot, giving up the pressure to defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun for the sack. Mullens tried to hurry the troops for another play, but time expired as the Golden Eagles attempted to line up at the Nebraska 40 yard line.
“We had them right where we wanted them,” Monken said. “We just didn’t find a way in the end to finish it.”
That sack killed a momentum that the Golden Eagles that had been building up throughout the second half.
Nick Mullens and his receivers were alone in their efforts in this game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, in which the Golden Eagles ended up falling 38-26. Running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith finished with 18 rushes, only going 51 yards combined. The running game was consistently stuffed on numerous occasions, so the game plan was adjusted to accommodate the comeback for the Golden Eagles.
“We couldn’t run the football and we have to be able to run the football to stay competitive,” Monken said. “We have got to find a way to run the ball better.”
The Golden Eagles got their act together in the second half, despite the fact that they had five penalties. They scored 21 points in just the fourth quarter, with Casey Martin coming alive for the Golden Eagles. Martin had 95 yards and two touchdowns just in the fourth quarter.
“There are no moral victories, we came up here thinking we could win,” Monken said. “They’re just too many little things that we have to clean up as coaches.”
With the emotional loss against Nebraska, Southern Miss can come back home to face North Texas, hopefully with the crowd that coach Monken was hoping for against Austin Peay. Just on social media, the Golden Eagle hopefuls are ready to pack the stadium against the Mean Green.
Southern Miss will return home to face North Texas on October 3 at 6 p.m.