USM rolls for comeback against Kentucky, 44-35

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Southern Miss players celebrate after defensive lineman Xavier Thigpen recovers a fumble against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss players celebrate after defensive lineman Xavier Thigpen (32) recovers a fumble against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)

These Golden Eagles were down, but certainly not out.

Southern Miss came back to fight off the Kentucky Wildcats 44-35 in the season opener and in the first game in the Jay Hopson era at Southern Miss.

“It was a pleasure watching the Black and Gold in the second half,” Hopson said. “I’m just really proud of the fight and the determination that our players showed. They never stopped believing.”

Southern Miss came out of the gate with all of the momentum in the first half. After a Wildcat punt on their first drive was blocked by Xavier “Paw Paw” Thigpen, the USM drive started at the Kentucky 49. Ito Smith got the ball early and often on the drive, carrying the ball five times and getting into the end zone from eight yards out.

Southern Miss held the edge early in the contest, but Kentucky quickly answered on their third drive of the game.

On only two plays, Kentucky would score on a 72-yard pass from Drew Barker to Jeff Badet to pull the game even at 7. Kentucky would keep the big plays rolling on a 43-yard Barker to Garret Johnson bomb to break the tie at 14-7.

Senior quarterback Nick Mullens had all the momentum in the country in the offseason garnering many awards. But in this contest, the hype did not match the product.

Mullens would throw 3 interceptions — not all entirely of his own doing — in the first half to keep his team in a hole they desperately could not dig out of.

“I just had a pretty tough stretch,” Mullens said. “Those mistakes are easily preventable. It’s a matter of just focusing and not turning the ball over.”

Kentucky would score 35 unanswered points in the first half and the game looked out of hand. Drew Barker had 287 yards and four touchdowns in just the first and second quarters. The offense of Kentucky was rolling, while the USM offense was stalling.

The game was getting out of hand with the score at 35-10 with 56 seconds left in the first half before Southern Miss capitalized on a 71-yard pass play from Mullens to Isaiah Jones to end the half.

“That was huge, a big play by Isaiah [Jones],” Hopson said. “That gave us a spark to come back and get the ball in the second half. If we get the score, come back and score in the second half, we’re right back in this game.”

Combined with injuries to the defensive line that saw Jerry McCorvey get injured just plays before, the communication on the defensive side of the ball was not evidently well.

“Communications was well, it was just we had a couple of busted [plays,]” Thigpen said. “We said the third and fourth quarters were ours.”

Heading into the half, the stats were as lopsided as they could be. Barker threw for over 280 yards in the first half, while Mullens threw for just 148 in the first two periods. Kentucky was averaging 10.8 yards per play, while USM averaged a contrasting 6.2.

The Golden Eagles would come out swinging in the second half, scoring on a 11-play, 84-yard drive to bring the score to a manageable 35-24 deficit.

Bradley would force a fumble from Drew Barker on the next Kentucky possession, and Thigpen would scoop it up for the recovery. That was all that Southern Miss needed to get back in the contest.

“That was a momentum-changer right there,” Bradley said. “My whole mindset was to get him to

the game and get the next play. Xavier [Thigpen] picked it up and the momentum shifted our way.”

Riding the arm of Mullens and the legs of Ito Smith, the Golden Eagles went downfield to the Kentucky 18 to try and convert a crucial third down to keep the game score within one score.

On that third down and three, Mullens faked the rush to Smith, then threw an 18-yard seam pass to Julian Allen for the touchdown and to bring the game to only a four-point deficit at 35-31.

On the next drive, Southern Miss was not looking for just a field goal, but for a score to put them ahead in the contest. Again, carrying the Golden Eagles on his back, Smith rushed the ball almost the entire drive all the way down to the Kentucky one yard line.

Although he did not push the ball in himself, Southern Miss was still able to take the lead on a Mullens rush from less than a yard out.

“I got a belief that if you can’t score from the inch, you don’t deserve to score at all,” Hopson said. “I thought it was a wise move.”

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles would hold onto that lead all the way into the end for the first win against an SEC team since 2000 against Alabama in Birmingham.

“It was a pleasure watching the Black and Gold in the second half,” Hopson said. “I’m just really proud of the fight and the determination that our players showed. They never stopped believing.”

After one of the worst performances of his career in the first half, Mullens returned to the second half in better form and finished 18-of-28 passing for 258 yards and two touchdowns. Mullens showed leadership and a willingness to lead his team to victory despite being down early.

“This game is not about individuals, it’s about the teamwork,” Bradley said. “[Mullens] is the head of the team. How he goes and how his composure is, that’s how the team is going to go. He showed great composure the whole game.”

Smith amassed 179 yards rushing on 36 carries, but that was not all of his contributions on the day. He was able to get 213 all-purpose yards on the night combined with his efforts through the air, also.

“I work on catching out the backfield a lot,” Smith said. “Being a running back, you’re going to run the ball and coach is going to trust me. That’s all to it.”

Southern Miss will face Savannah State in their first home game on Sep. 10 at 6 p.m. at M.M. Roberts Stadium.

Southern Miss Will Freeman (69) picks up place kicker Parker Shaunfield (21) after a successful field goal against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss Will Freeman (69) picks up place kicker Parker Shaunfield (21) after a successful field goal against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss running back George Payne runs against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss running back George Payne (24) runs against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss players sack Kentucky Wildcats quarter back Drew Barker (7) in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss players sack Kentucky Wildcats quarter back Drew Barker (7) in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss wide receiver Allenzae Staggers catches a pass against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss wide receiver Allenzae Staggers (15) catches a pass against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back Devonta Foster (15) tackles a Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back Devonta Foster (15) tackles a Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith blocks a Kentucky Wildcat from tackling him in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith (25) blocks a Kentucky Wildcat from tackling him in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive lineman Dylan Bradley (94) tackles a Kentucky Wildcats running back in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier).
Southern Miss defensive lineman Dylan Bradley (94) tackles a Kentucky Wildcats running back in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier).
Southern Miss defensive lineman Dylan Bradley (94) celebrates after a successful tackle against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive lineman Dylan Bradley (94) celebrates after a successful tackle against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back Curtis Mikell (19) runs the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back Curtis Mikell (19) runs the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson demanding a review for a play against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson demanding a review for a play against the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back D'Nerius Antoine (12) tackles Kentucky Wildcats running back Stanley "Boom" Williams in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back D’Nerius Antoine (12) tackles Kentucky Wildcats running back Stanley “Boom” Williams in Lexington, Kentucky on September 3, 2016. (Student Printz/ Hunt Mercier)
Southern Miss defensive back Taravarius Moore tackls Kentucky runner back Sihiem King at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss defensive back Taravarius Moore tackls Kentucky runner back Sihiem King at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss linebacker Elijah Parker celebrates with one of the coaches from Southern Miss at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss linebacker Elijah Parker celebrates with one of the coaches from Southern Miss at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Seymour poses with Southern Miss cheerleaders at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Seymour poses with Southern Miss cheerleaders at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss fans celebrate the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss fans celebrate the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss fans celebrate the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss fans celebrate the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss wide receiver Allenzae Staggers celebrates the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)
Southern Miss wide receiver Allenzae Staggers celebrates the winning at the Southern Miss vs. Kentucky football game on Sunday, Sep 4th, 2016. ( Student Printz/Fadi Shahin)