Southern Miss fell to third-ranked Alabama, 52-12, Saturday night, Sept. 13 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in a game that was over early in the third quarter.
But, the scoreboard was not truly indicative of how these two teams matched up. USM played much better than most expected, but just could not come through in clutch situations.
Time after time, USM was able to put together solid drives, but could not figure out how to finish them off. This was the big difference in the game: Alabama finished their drives while Southern Miss stalled in the red zone.
“At one point, we had three opportunities; we had three field goals,” said Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken. “They had four opportunities: They scored touchdowns. That’s the way it is. I don’t care who you play. You put yourself out of reach. That’s the way it is. I think our guys fought.”
In the first half, the only thing the Alabama offense could really hang their hat on was quarterback Blake Sims connecting with wide receiver Amari Cooper. The tandem connected five times in the first half for 72 yards and a touchdown. Cooper finished the game with eight catches for 135 yards and is clearly Sims’ favorite target.
“It’s always good to know that you have a guy that’s going to run for you,” Sims said. “It really helps when everyone focuses on him you have other receivers to throw to. Cooper does it very well, and he is (a) great team player. He gives extra effort all the time and it’s good to have him and know that you always have someone open.”
The Golden Eagle defense showed resilience in the early going, making several key stops. Besides struggling to cover Cooper, the only other weakness was failing to contain Sims from scrambling outside the pocket. Sims carried the ball five times for 46 yards and a touchdown.
But in the second half, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry could not be stopped by the Golden Eagles. Alabama just continued to get whatever they wanted on the ground in the second half. Drake finished the game with 59 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries and Henry led the Tide with 73 yards on 11 carries.
Despite the red zone struggles, USM quarterback Nick Mullens performed admirably. He was harassed all game, but continued to fight and make plays for the USM offense. But his receivers did not help much, dropping several key passes, particularly early in the game when the score was still close.
It may be just a coincidence, but it seems that Mullens performs best when he plays in his home state of Alabama. The best game of his career was also in Alabama in the season finale last season against UAB.
“It was pretty cool to be able to come back, to see this atmosphere, feel this atmosphere, and hearing `Sweet Home Alabama,’” Mullens said. “Those are the types of things you hear as a kid, and to be able to hear that while you’re playing the football game, and playing a great team like Alabama, is a very incredible opportunity for me and the team.”
Mullens finished the game completing 19-35 for 207 yards, without a touchdown or an interception. Markese Triplett was his favorite target in the game, leading USM with five catches for 46 yards.
With the offense being inept in the red zone, senior kicker Corey Acosta benefitted greatly. He tied his career-high with four made field goals, which he set last week. He is well on his way to having the best season of his career as he has already made eight field goals in the first three games. He only made 11 each of the past two seasons.
USM failed to run the ball effectively throughout as Tez Parks led the team with just 22 yards rushing on two carries, while Ito Smith had just 15 yards on six carries. For a large portion of the game, USM abandoned the running game almost altogether.
“It’s hard to run on them, they have big son of a guns up front,” Monken said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to push those guys around. It wasn’t the plan to not be balanced, but I think good football is balanced. It always has been and always will be. We had some things that we were looking to take advantage, actually I wouldn’t say take advantage, but we knew we had to make some plays on the perimeter.”
Through three games, it is hard to tell what type of season Southern Miss (1-2) will have. They have performed pretty well thus far considering the level of competition they faced, but are yet to play a team who is close to equal on paper. But to have any success this season, the offense is going to have to find a way to start converting in the red zone.
USM will continue their season when they host Appalachian State Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. in M.M. Roberts Stadium.