Southern Miss found themselves with their backs up against the wall, staring overtime in the face after Appalachian State’s Taylor Lamb hit Simms McElfresh for a two-yard touchdown to make it 21-20, pending the extra point.
Extra points are more of a formality in today’s game, but that final extra point is the reason the Golden Eagles are now 2-2. Dasman McCullum came up huge for USM, blocking the extra point and sealing the win.
“I just knew we had to make a play,” McCullum said. “I know (Rakeem) Nunez (Roches) had been getting good pressure on the field goal blocks so I said, ‘Nunez, you make the pressure and I am going to block it,’ and I just happened to stick my hand up at the right time and block the field goal.”
Although running back George Payne scored all three Golden Eagle touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving, the ground game continued to struggle. The Mountaineers held USM to just 61 yards rushing on 25 attempts, just a 2.4-yard average.
“We know we have to run the ball better,” said head coach Todd Monken. “We did not do that. We have to have a better plan on how to run it.”
USM showed part of that plan with varying success as they employed the wildcat formation for the first time this season with Payne receiving direct snaps. Payne thinks his style of running is tailored to run out of the wildcat.
“It is going downhill and that is usually my style,” Payne said. “I just got my shoulders squared and just ran over who was in the way.”
Appalachian State had more success on the ground, running for 191 yards and a touchdown. Marcus Cox led the ground attack with 119 yards on 22 carries.
Quarterback Nick Mullens seemed to take a step back in his maturation, throwing two crucial interceptions to Joel Ross, but still made enough plays to keep USM in the game, particularly on the final drive for the offense.
He led a 65-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 31-yard touchdown pass to Payne, which gave the Golden Eagles the 21-14 lead with just over two minutes to play in the game. He completed 22-35 attempts for 268 yards and a touchdown.
“I didn’t think Nick saw me at first as I was waving my hand and making sure he saw me,” Payne said. “It was a perfect call by the coaches. The safety and the linebacker blitzed so I was left wide open. I do not think anyone was within 10 yards of me.”
Markese Triplett had the longest play of the day for USM with a 36-yard reception, but had the ball stripped away from him leading to a Mountaineers’ recovery. Triplett definitely has the talent to make explosive plays for the offense, but it is mistakes like these that keep him from becoming a true threat.
Mountaineers’ quarterback Taylor Lamb was solid throughout, finishing with a combined 303 yards and two touchdowns. McElfresh was his leading receiver with 68 yards on seven receptions and the late touchdown.
“He played tough in the fourth quarter,” Cox said. “He came in and tied the game for us. He has a bright future.”
It was a long day for the Southern Miss defense as they allowed the Mountaineers to convert on 8-16 third down attempts. But the defense stepped up huge a few times as Picasso Nelson, Jr. and Jomez Applewhite came down with interceptions despite being on the field nearly 12 more minutes than the offense.
“At the end, what matters most is finding a way to win,” Monken said. “Now we have to find a way to win. Now we have to find a way to do it better against a Rice team that is stung a little bit. It will be our conference opener. We will continue to get better. I know it. We have the right kind of guys.”
Southern Miss will begin its conference schedule Saturday when they host Rice (0-3, 0-1) at 6 p.m.