Despite Southern Miss putting up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, missed opportunities early on and poor tackling throughout the game hurt the Golden Eagles in a 37-31 loss to Middle Tennessee State on the road Saturday night.
Like many times this season, the Golden Eagles failed to catch the ball in clutch situations, convert on earlier downs instead of having to convert in third-down situations, poor tackling on defense and missed opportunities held Southern Miss from earning a victory.
“It was a great win,” said MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill.“Southern Miss is definitely an improved team from last year. We knew it was going to be a fourth quarter game and it was a great win. We competed the entire game. I was really proud of the offense today. Grammer played well, the offensive line blocked well, and the running backs just picked their holes.”
Following a short USM punt on their first possession, MTSU started its drive in good field position from the Golden Eagles 27-yard line. Blue Raiders quarterback Austin Grammer attempted to run the ball twice, but was stopped for no gain on both attempts. Then, after Grammer completed a pass for a gain of four yards, Cody Clark came on to kick a field goal, giving the Blue Raiders an early 3-0 advantage.
Starting from their own 35-yard line, the Golden Eagles put together a solid drive with hard, earned runs by George Payne and Ito Smith and passes from quarterback Nick Mullens to craft a 13 play, 54-yard drive that took 4:53, but the drive failed to produce any points. Following a one yard pass from Mullens to Tez Parks on the Blue Raiders’ 13-yard line, Kevin Byard intercepted Mullens’ pass on the next play, ending the Golden Eagles opportunity to score.
Despite the turnover, Southern Miss managed to keep the Blue Raiders from scoring and on the ensuing drive. The Golden Eagles tied the game with a field goal on their next drive to make the score 3-3.
After a huge 59-yard kick return by Reggie Whatley, MTSU started from the Golden Eagles 36-yard line. The Blue Raiders had no problem finding the end zone, scoring a touchdown in four plays, going 36 yards in 55 seconds to take a 10-3 lead.
Following the end of the first quarter, the Golden Eagles began the second quarter on the Blue Raiders four-yard line. USM running back George Payne scored a rushing touchdown on the drive, but the Golden Eagles fail to convert on the extra, causing them to trail 10-9.
The next three team possessions changed the overall tone of the game. After Southern Miss scored, MTSU responded back with a score of its own. Due to bad coverage on defense, Grammer connected with Terry Pettis for a 59-yard touchdown pass and after the extra point, the Blue Raiders took a 17-9 advantage.
However, it would look as if the Golden Eagles would respond with a touchdown, marching all the way down to the Blue Raiders 25-yard line. On the next play, Mullens connected on 13-yard pass to Michael Thomas, but thanks to an active MTSU defense, the Blue Raiders forced Thomas to fumble and recovered it.
After the fumble recovery, MTSU running back Shane Tucker broke into the open field for a 44-yard touchdown run to increase the Blue Raiders lead to 24-9. Southern Miss got another chance to score before the half, but could not get in the end zone. Instead, Corey Acosta made a 26-yard field goal to make the score 24-12 at the half.
In the third quarter, neither team was able to find the end zone, but rather both defenses stood tall in critical situations. But in the fourth quarter, things got interesting.
Starting from their own 41-yard line, Grammer led the MTSU offense with an equal amount of running and passing plays. Grammer connected with Devin Clarke on a huge 33-yard touchdown pass to increase the Blue Raiders lead to 31-12.
On the ensuing drive, USM answered with a Nick Mullens 17-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas as one of his two fourth quarter touchdowns to cut the lead to 31-18 due to a missed two-point conversion.
Despite a little momentum to make a comeback, the Golden Eagles gave up another big touchdown to the Blue Raiders with Reggie Whatley busting through the line for a 64-yard touchdown run. MTSU went for a two-point conversion but did not convert in, leaving the score 37-18.
Within the next two drives, Southern Miss offense came to life and in a hurry. With 8:41 remaining in fourth quarter, the Golden Eagles started from their own 26-yard line. In 1:32, the Golden Eagles went 5 plays and 74 yards with Mullens connecting with Thomas again for the touchdown. Southern Miss went for the two-point conversion but failed to convert on it, making the score 37-24.
Then, USM stopped MTSU on the ensuing drive and scored an additional touchdown with Mullens, connecting with Marquise Ricard to make the score 37-31.
With 27 seconds left in the game, Southern Miss went for an offside kick, but was not successful in the situation, giving the MTSU the win.
Golden Eagle quarterback Nick Mullens had a great day, throwing for 426 yards and three touchdowns that all came in the fourth quarter. He also threw one critical interception early on in the game.
Michael Thomas put on a strong performance, recording the first 100-yard game of his career on nine receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns and Marquise Ricard recorded three catches for 34 yards and one touchdown. George Payne led USM in rushing with 24 carries for 89 yard and a touchdown.
Statistically, Southern Miss (2-4, 0-2) won the game in some categories, including first downs 30-22 and third downs going 12-for-19. However, MTSU (4-2, 3-0) had more total yards for the game with 583 in comparison to 527 by Southern Miss.
Not only did Southern Miss give up 583 yards of total offense, the team allowed the Blue Raiders offense to remain on the field in third down situations. MTSU went 6-12 on third downs. Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer had a productive day, throwing 332 yards and two touchdowns.
On defense for the Golden Eagles, Trae Collins recovered his first fumble of his career with 11:27 left in the third quarter. Dasman McCullum recorded his third forced fumble of his career and linebacker Brian Anderson had a team-high 11 tackles.
Southern Miss will have a week off and return to action on Oct. 18 on the road against North Texas. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.