Southern Miss felt they were ready to face the best team in Conference USA West division, Louisiana Tech, but fell 31-20 in a game that could have been won by the Golden Eagles Saturday afternoon.
Injuries and inexperience hurt USM as they lost their starting quarterback, Nick Mullens, to a foot injury early in the first quarter. Redshirt senior Cole Weeks was the next quarterback in line and was given the chance to lead the Golden Eagle offense.
“I thought he played his heart out. If there is one thing I’m happy about, it’s that he gets a chance to play,” said head coach Todd Monken. “I thought he made a lot of really good throws under some tough situations. For the amount of reps he has gotten and the amount of time he has been with us, I thought he played well enough to continue to give us a chance to win. I am proud of him.”
The look of the offense quickly changed with Mullens absent as the Golden Eagles turned their focus toward the running game and quick screens to the outside.
With nine minutes remaining in the first quarter, Weeks handed the ball to running back George Payne who found the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown run giving the Golden Eagles an early 7-0 lead. It was Payne’s sixth consecutive game with a rushing touchdown.
Early in the second quarter, La. Tech began on their own 25-yard line and drove 69 yards down the field into Southern Miss territory. Not long after Mullens’ injury, USM was hit with another setback when their starting safety Emmanuel Johnson was ejected from the game for targeting. However, USM was able to force a 24-yard field goal by Kyle Fischer, making the score 7-3.
Late in the second quarter, Troy Jeter forced La. Tech running back Kenneth Dixon to cough up the ball on the USM 31-yard line; it was recovered by Jacorius Cotton.
The momentum had swung into USM’s favor, but an errant snap backed them up to their own 11-yard line. USM was forced to take a knee and head into the locker room ahead of La. Tech 7-3, its first halftime lead in conference play since 2012.
On only the second play of the third quarter, La. Tech quarterback Cody Sokol threw a check-down pass to Dixon who scampered for 84 yards, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game.
“We gave up too many big plays,” Monken said. “To start the second half, you give a check-down for 85 yards. That can’t happen.”
On the ensuing possession, Weeks found his rhythm with his receivers as he connected twice with Marquise Ricard before completing a 22-yard strike to Casey Martin. Weeks connected once more to Markese Triplett for a 19-yard gain, but the drive was halted by poor execution in the running game and a sack as the Golden Eagles were forced to settle for a 44-yard field goal from Corey Acosta.
La. Tech took the lead back late in the third quarter with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dixon. Monken knew they had to stop La. Tech’s star running back Dixon in order to be successful. He was held to under 20 rushing yards, but had a career-high 124 yards receiving along with two touchdowns.
USM was able to cut the score to 17-13 with 9:31 left in the game, but USM’s inability to score in the red zone affected them greatly.
From there, the La. Tech offense confidently took over. The Bulldogs added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, pulling away from the Golden Eagles.
“It is turnovers, explosive plays, third-down conversions, touchdowns in the red zone and loss yardage plays,” Monken said. “We gave up too many big plays. We didn’t make a couple when we had a chance to make them.”
USM’s defense looked sharp throughout most of the game, forcing numerous three-and-outs, sacks and pressure on the quarterback, but without Mullens it seemed as if the offense could not get things going.
Weeks had a slow start after replacing Mullens, but he loosened up and threw for over 300 yards for the first time in his career. He finished with 338 passing yards, completing 28-of-45 pass attempts with one touchdown and two interceptions.
“I was glad I got to play, but I wanted to win,” Weeks said. “There were some situations I could have done better to help our team out.”
The rushing game was almost nonexistent for the Golden Eagles as they were credited with -31 yards, skewed by yards lost on bad snaps.
For the first time since 2011, Southern Miss had two receivers with over 100 yards in Thomas and Triplett. Corey Acosta was perfect on both field goals and is now 16-19 on the year.
For La. Tech, Sokol threw for 423 yards, while Dixon led all receiving yards with a career high of 124 for the day. USM was able to hold La. Tech to only 30 yards rushing.
Southern Miss needs to be much more consistent for four quarters in order to start stacking wins.
“We have come a long way,” Monken said. “Our players play hard to the end. It has been a sign throughout the year, but we just weren’t good enough today.”
USM will head to El Paso, Texas Saturday to take on UTEP (4-3, 2-1). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.