Southern Miss traveled to Nebraska for the third time in four 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 their recent showdowns.
“I love the way our guys competed,” said head coach Todd Monken. “We’ve got a good group of guys in there. 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., going 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 never happened after Parker Shaunfield botched a field goal. Shaunfield finished 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 to 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 Cornhusker 10-yard line, but a penalty brought them back 15 yards. Despite the penalty, it took Southern Miss only two plays for Ito Smith to take it into the end zone from 17 yards out. That play began the spark that the Golden Eagles needed to stay in the game.
“Our guys never quit; we got a lot of character on our team. We have good players.” -Monken said.
After Nebraska extended their lead to 29-7 late in the third quarter, Nick Mullens and the offense took off. He found Casey Martin in the end zone on consecutive drives to cut the lead to 29-21. Monken knew he needed to steal a possession so he opted for an onside kick, which was recovered by Xavier Thigpen, after the first Mullens to Martin connection.
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,” Monken said. “There are things we could have done (better) earlier in the game to help him.”
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-yard line with a 4th 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.
Mullens and the offense started at their own 20-yard line, with only 29 seconds left to go, 80 yards and 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 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 tried to 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.
“We had them right where we wanted them,” Monken said. “We just didn’t find a way in the end to finish it.”
The sack killed the momentum the Golden Eagles had been building up throughout the second half.
Mullens and his receivers were alone in their efforts in this game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, in which the Golden Eagles ended up falling 36-28. Running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith finished with 18 rushes, but only picked up 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.”
It was still a tremendous effort and comeback for the Golden Eagles as they scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, with Mullens and Martin coming alive for the Golden Eagles. Martin had 95 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Despite competing against a very formidable Big 10 opponent, Monken was not happy with just coming close.
“There are no moral victories,” he said. “We came up here thinking we could win. (There are) just too many little things that we have to clean up as coaches.”
Following the emotional loss against Nebraska, Southern Miss will look to get back in the win column, returning home to face North Texas Saturday.
The Mean Green are coming off a 62-16 blowout loss against Iowa and are looking to avenge last season’s 30-20 loss against USM. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.