MOBILE – Turnovers, inefficient red zone offense, and an inconsistent passing game were the key components in Southern Miss' season-opening 31-7 loss to South Alabama to begin.
It was by no means what Golden Eagle fans were hoping for in Southern Miss coach Will Hall's debut.
"They really played well and kicked our butt good," Hall said. "That was a good solid but whipping. (I was) disappointed in how we played offensively. That was the turning point in the game.
"That was a humiliating performance. I've been around football for a long time. I've been a part of 11 championship teams, and that's the worst offensive performance I've been a part of. It's on me."
By the end of the night, the Golden Eagles fumbled four times, losing two, and in total turned the ball over four times that resulted in two touchdowns for South Alabama. Southern Miss was 1-for-3 in the red zone with two fumbles killing chances to score.
Despite the ugly ending, the Golden Eagles took the lead against South Alabama at the beginning of the game. On Southern Miss' second drive, the Golden Eagles put together a 16-play, 73-yard drive. A late targeting penalty on third and long helped Southern Miss cap off the drive with Trey Lowe scoring on a quarterback keeper to give USM a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
From there, the Golden Eagle offense sputtered as the passing game failed to click in the first half as Lowe was just 4 of 12 for 20 yards.
"I played really poorly in the first half," Lowe said. "Just really poor. A lot of it was on me, as you probably saw. It was bad. I just played so badly in the first half. I don't know what was wrong with me, to be honest. I was missing reads and going through it too fast and going through it too slow and not seeing things all the way.
"(Coach Hall) tried to put (the loss) on himself, but it wasn't on him. We did uncharacteristic things. The positive thing was that we kicked ourselves. We drove all the way down the field. They never stopped us, and we turned it over. We could have driven it down the field for a game-winning drive, but we just shot ourselves in the foot."
Four out of Southern Miss' five drives in the first half were three and outs. The Golden Eagles' only other promising drive in the second half came with 7 minutes and 34 seconds left in the quarter but was killed by a holding penalty.
"When we threw it to the right guy, we dropped it," said Hall about the inefficient passing game. "When we had people wide open, we didn't read it right. We had guys miss signals and bust routes. You saw in the second half, when we executed, we went right down the field, which was good to see. Trey made some error throws. He made some bad reads and made some error throws. When he made good throws, we dropped it and then we busted some routes."
South Alabama's offense found life in wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, who showed reminisce of his 169-yard game in the Golden Eagles' 32-21 loss in the 2020 season, as Tolbert set up three of South Alabama' scoring drives.
A 49-yard pass to Tolbert set up South Alabama's first score of the night, with quarterback Jake Bentley completing a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 14 minutes and 42 seconds left in the second quarter. However, momentum quickly shifted momentum in South Alabama's favor as Camron Harrell fumbled on the kickoff return and set up the Jaguars' offense at the Golden Eagles' 23-yard line. Bentley finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown to give South Alabama a 14-7 lead at the half.
South Alabama opened the second half with a 75-yard, seven-play scoring drive. A 27-yard catch by Tolbert set up a quarterback sneaker. After the touchdown, the Golden Eagle defense held the Jaguars to a 48-yard field goal midway through the third. Tolbert finished the game with five catches for 168 yards while Bentley was 17 of 22 and threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
"I thought (the defense) played well," Hall said. "I really did. We gave up a few deep balls to No. 8 (Tolbert), but he is a great player. All in all, we made a lot of big stops. They kept us in a really hard game to keep us in on. There were several three and outs. We weren't generating much offense. They were tired. I thought we battled right there. We didn't line up a few times correctly. The only drive we probably would like to have to back was the opening drive in the second half. We got out of position a few times.
"In the first half, we turned the ball over on special teams, which flipped momentum and gave them a short field. I thought, given the circumstances of field position and turnovers. I thought our defense played well."
Unlike the defense, the offense continued to struggle despite putting together several positive drives. With just under six minutes in the third quarter, the Golden Eagles drove to South Alabama's 11-yard line, but a Lowe fumbled on fourth and two and killed the 11-play drive, 86-yard drive.
The same events transpired again at the beginning of the fourth quarter as Southern Miss's offense started at South Alabama's 43-yard line. The Golden Eagles drove to the Jaguars' 10-yard line but running back Darius Maberry fumbled to end the drive.
"In the second half, we drive it down to the red zone twice, and we fumble," Hall said. "We busted a snap which is inexcusable. The center-quarterback exchange has got to be the most paramount thing in football. We are inside the 10-yard line, and we turn it over. If we punch those in then, we are driving to score to win the game. Then we run a punt back and get a stupid penalty. We just weren't a well-coached football game tonight, and that's on me."
Finally, with less than a minute left in the game Lowe, threw a pick to an end to the frustrating night. Lowe finished the game 13 of 29 and threw for 133 yards and two picks while also rushing for 24 yards and a touchdown off 19 carries. Frank Gore Jr. led Southern Miss' offense with 81 yards on 19 carries.
"The positives are that when we executed, we moved the ball and that everything is fixable," Hall said. "If we couldn't run fast, jump high, or weren't strong, then I would say I don't know what I can do. We have good players. We just have to execute. We have to do what we are supposed to do. That's fixable, so I guess that's a positive. But no, there were not a lot of positives. That was a humiliating performance."
Southern Miss will host Grambling State next week for its home opener.