Southern Miss (8-3, 6-1 Conference USA) improved its winning streak to five games, beating Old Dominion Saturday 56-31.
The score may suggest this was a lopsided affair, but the Monarchs gave the Golden Eagles quite a scare. Old Dominion had a 10-point 31-21 lead with less than six minutes to play in the third quarter before USM came to life.
USM fell behind due to costly turnovers and blown assignments defensively. With a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, ODU’s Terrell Reid got around the edge and stripped quarterback Nick Mullens before Martez Simpson scooped up the fumble and scored from 33 yards out to tie up the score.
But USM responded well on the very next drive. On a 1st- and-10 from the ODU 34-yard line, Mullens sold the play action just long enough for the safety to bite as Casey Martin got behind the secondary on a seam route, catching the touchdown to give USM the lead, 14-7.
After an apparent knee injury knocked the Monarchs’ starting quarterback, David Washington, out of the game, Shuler Bentley took over and gave the stagnant ODU offense life. Bentley marched the Monarchs down the field methodically before connecting with Zach Pascal for a 16-yard touchdown, tying the game at 14 apiece.
But the turnover bug bit the Golden Eagles once again. Facing a 2nd-and-3 from the ODU 10-yard line, Mullens tried to hit D.J. Thompson on a quick slant in the end zone, but Fellonte Misher dropped back into the throwing lane and picked off Mullens’ pass. Although the interception did not lead to points (USM forced a three-and-out), it was a big missed opportunity to take the lead.
After Stephen Brauchle missed a 35-yard field goal for the Golden Eagles—another missed opportunity—Bentley led the Monarchs on a 17-play, 77-yard drive that resulted in a field goal right before halftime.
On the first possession of the second half, the Golden Eagles ended a 5-play, 67-yard drive with Mullens connecting with Michael Thomas for a 24-yard touchdown to take back the lead. Thomas ran a simple 9-route, but it was Mullens’ ball placement on the throw that made the play.
Monarch cornerback Aaron Young had solid, inside position on Thomas, but Mullens threw the ball to Thomas’ out- side shoulder, making Young unable to make a play on the ball. Mullens placed the ball perfectly to where only his guy could catch it.
But the Monarchs responded once again. Bentley was a perfect 5-for-5 on the ensuing drive, hitting Jonathan Duhart for an 11- yard touchdown to put the Mon- archs back on top, 24-21.
On the Golden Eagles’ ensuing possession, they found themselves in no man’s land at the ODU 36-yard line, too far for a field goal and too close to punt. Head coach Todd Monken rolled the dice on 4th-and-6, but his gutsy decision backfired, big time. Mullens’ pass to Taylor Marini was incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
Then the Monarchs struck. ODU dialed up a fake receiver screen with Duhart acting as blocker before running a wheel route down the sideline. USM bit on the screen, leaving Duhart wide open. Bentley hit him in stride for a 64-yard touchdown to put ODU up, 31-21.
Down 10 midway through the third quarter with their conference championship hopes dwindling, the Golden Eagles answered in a big way.
With Jalen Richard sidelined temporarily with a minor injury, Ito Smith’s quickness and decisiveness as a runner sparked the USM offense. On his second carry of the drive, Smith exploded through a small hole and into the secondary, weaving his way to a 30-yard gain.
One play later, Smith took the handoff, cut back to the inside then back outside and only had one man standing between him and paydirt, Brandon Addison. Running toward the outside, Smith stuck his foot in the ground, cutting back inside and had Addison lunging at air as Smith raced for a 19-yard touchdown.
On ODU’s first play on the ensuing drive, Devonta Foster forced Pascal to fumble and Anthony Swain picked up the loose ball.
Down three points, Monken gambled big twice and was rewarded by senior workhorse running back Richard. Facing a 4th-and-1 from the ODU 20-yard line, Richard muscled his way for the first down. Three plays later, USM faced another 4th-and-1. Monken trusted his offensive line and Richard to pick up the one yard.
The Golden Eagles lined up in their goal-line package. Mullens handed it to Richard, who ran through a gaping hole off left tackle and scampered into the end zone for the 10-yard score, giving USM the 35-31 lead.
The USM defense then came up with another huge play. On the Monarchs’ first play of the ensuing drive, Swain was engaged with the right tackle, but managed to get his hands up to bat the ball into the back- field where Naim Mustafaa was waiting with open arms for the interception.
“I did like the way our guys fought back, and those momentum plays kind of got us going and we found a way,” Monken said.
On the next play, Richard got to the edge and walked into the end zone from four yards out. It took just 18 seconds for USM to turn a 3-point deficit into an 11-point lead. USM would add two more touchdowns before it was over. A 9-yard scramble by Mullens and a 54-yard run by Richard sealed the deal for the Golden Eagles.
“We have not been in that situation this year since early on in the season,” Richard said. “The guys were able to dial in at half time and come out and (handled) what we needed to handle.”
Mullens was his typical self, throwing for over 300 yards once again and two touchdowns. But it was the running game that made the difference.
As a team, the Golden Eagles had 310 yards on the ground and six touchdowns. Richard totaled 161 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries while Smith tallied 125 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
There were plenty of records broken by Golden Eagles in this game. Mullens broke two single- season records, passing touchdowns (32) and passing yards (3,578), surpassing Austin Davis for both records. Martin broke the single-season catch record, hauling in his 68th catch of the season in the third quarter, breaking DeAndre Brown’s mark of 67 set in 2008.
“Going into today’s game, I definitely knew about the record, but it feels good from all the hard work I have put in this season,” Martin said. “To see it pay off tonight makes me very happy.”
The Golden Eagles are now just one win away from playing for the C-USA title.