Caption: Southern Miss Golden Eagles running back George Payne signals touchdown as he goes in for the score from five yards out against the North Texas Mean Green during the third quarter at Apogee Stadium. Southern Miss handed North Texas a 30-20 loss. Ray Carlin/USA Today Sports
A strong offensive performance and critical defensive stands helped Southern Miss (3-4, 1-2) defeat North Texas (2-5) in a 30-20 contest on the road Saturday evening.
With the victory the Golden Eagles earned their first win on the road and in conference play for the season.
“I’m fired up for our team, I’m fired up for our fans and the people who have supported us and the university,” said head coach Todd Monken. “We had a great contingency of fans here. It really was good. Bottom line is: we’re a good football team, we just gotta play better. When we play better, we give ourselves a great chance to win.”
After Southern Miss forced North Texas to punt in the opening drive of the game, the Golden Eagles took over from their own 20-yard line. USM quarterback Nick Mullens connected on a 16-yard pass to Jalen Richard, putting the Golden Eagles on their own 36-yard line. Following a series of short runs, Mullens connected with wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 40-yard touchdown pass, giving the Golden Eagles an early 7-0 lead.
Over the next two possessions, the Mean Green were forced to punt twice and Mullens threw an early interception in North Texas’ territory. Following a North Texas punt, Southern Miss scored again with a 38-yard field goal by Corey Acosta, increasing the Golden Eagle lead to 10-0.
Despite trailing by an early deficit, the Mean Green regrouped. North Texas quarterback Andrew McNulty connected with wide receiver Carlos Harris for a 45-yard pass play. To begin the second quarter, following an 18-yard run by Harris to the Golden Eagles two-yard line. North Texas running back Antoinne Jimmerson scored a rushing touchdown, cutting the lead to 10-7 following the extra point.
On the next drive, Mullens threw his second interception leading to a North Texas field goal, tying the game 10-10. Both teams would add a field goal before halftime, making the score 13-13.
In the third quarter, in what looked to be a short drive for the Golden Eagles, punter Tyler Sarrazin made a critical play on fourth down, faking a punt and running for 11 yards to give USM a first down.
“The punt fake wasn’t rolling the dice,” Monken said. “They were in ‘safe,’ I was just afraid Tyler (Sarrazin) was just gonna run around and not get the first down. That was good by Coach (John) Wozniak and the way that they scouted it; that wasn’t even hard.”
Following a reception by James Cox and a couple of strong runs, running back George Payne scored on a five-yard touchdown run to make the score 20-13.
However, the Mean Green did not give up, responding with a touchdown of their own, going 86 yards in seven plays to tie the game, 20-20.
With 6:08 left in the third quarter, Southern Miss took over the game and never looked back. Starting from their own four-yard line, the Golden Eagles used a strong running attack from George Payne, a 38-yard run by Ito Smith, combined with a
few stellar throws from Mullens to put Southern Miss in the red zone. Then, Mullens connected with Casey Martin for a 19-yard touchdown pass to give USM a 27-20 advantage.
As both teams went back-and-forth in scoring, North Texas failed to convert on a long third down situation, forcing the team to punt.
In the fourth quarter, Southern Miss added another field goal to its seven-point advantage, making the score 30-20 with 12:01 remaining in the game. The Mean Green received one more opportunity to score, but kicker Trevor Moore missed on a 33-yard field goal with 8:07 left in regulation.
For the remainder of the game, the Golden Eagles defense stood tall in keeping the Mean Green from scoring to get the victory.
“I thought our guys made plays when they had to make plays. It was 30-20 and we had to stop them twice, once to make them kick a field goal, and then have to stop them again,” Monken said. “We’ve got a good football team, we’ve got good players. We just have to continue to find a way to eliminate the self-inflicted issues that we have and get off the field on third downs.”
Mullens threw for 305 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for the evening. Ito Smith led the way for the Golden Eagles on the ground, rushing for 95 yards on 12 carries, followed by George Payne with 67 yards on 14 carries.
Collectively, the Golden Eagles rushed for 201 yards, finally establishing the balance that Monken has preached about all season, and recorded a total of 506 yards of total offense.
“I thought the offensive line did a great job, I thought (offensive line coach) Luke Meadows did a great job,” Monken said. “We needed to get the ball to the perimeter for Ito (Smith), he is a space player. That’s on me, we’ve gotta be able to get him in space. George (Payne) is a downhill, power runner, and Jalen (Richard) is a guy we need to get the ball throwing to him.”
Southern Miss also won the battle in time of possession and third-down conversions. Defensively, Dylan Bradley and Dasman McCullum each recorded a sack.
For North Texas, McNulty threw for 287 yards. Jimmerson led the team in rushing, tallying 57 yards on 13 carries and Carlos Harris recorded a career-high 15 receptions for 216 yards for the game.
Southern Miss will return home this week to take on Conference USA division leader Louisiana Tech Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.