It may not have been the year Will Hall had hoped for in his first season at Southern Miss.
But Hall and the Golden Eagles managed to end the 2021 season on a positive note with back-to-back wins as a four-touchdown performance by Frank Gore Jr. propelled Southern Miss past Florida International for a 37-17 win at M.M. Roberts Stadium on Saturday.
"Really good way to end the year," Southern Miss coach Will Hall said. "I'm really proud of these kids and the way they've battled. It's been well documented how shorthanded we are, all the stuff these kids have been through, not just this year, but over the last two years.
"But, man, our kids, they just rallied together. They've played the right way. Our young kids are really bought into where we're going. They're really talented. They're helping us recruit. And then our older kids, man, they're leaving a legacy, and I'm so proud of the legacy they've left."
As one of five different players to play to take snaps as Hall's Superback, Gore finished 4-for-5 and threw for two touchdowns and 81 yards while running in two more touchdowns and rushing for 68 yards.
"Frank is a winner," Hall said. "He's a tough guy. He played these last two games battered and bruised. He wanted to do this. He wanted to give us a chance to win."
A QUICK START
Southern Miss (3-9, 2-6) got off to its best start of the season and took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter after the Golden Eagle defense forced three turnovers in FIU's first three possessions of the game.
A key catalyst for those turnovers was Jay Stanley as he finished the game with a forced fumble, an interception, a fumble recovery and six tackles.
"We have been playing pretty good defense all year," Stanley said. "We had been talking about forcing turnovers, and since Middle Tennessee, we started to get turnovers, which created momentum. I think we've had a turnover every game since the Middle Tennessee game. We just see ball, get ball."
On FIU's first drive, the Golden Panthers drove to USM's 33-yard line. Quarterback Max Bortenschlager completed a what would have been touchdown scoring pass to Bryce Singleton. However, Stanley forced the ball out, and Eriq Scott recovered.
Southern Miss then put together its longest scoring drive of the season, a 9-play, 92-yard drive that was capped off by a 29-yard touchdown by Dajon Richard. Richard finished the game with 107 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
On the Golden Panthers' next drive' Bortenshlager was picked off by Stanley. Gore then promptly followed by connecting with wide receiver Jason Brownlee for a 34-yard touchdown.
Finally, USM's defense forced a three out, but Natrone Brooks came up with a 77-yard punt return and set up the Golden Eagle offense at the FIU 2-yard line. Gore punched in the touchdown to extend the lead.
CRITICAL FOURTH AND ONE
The Golden Panthers did manage to shift momentum and cut Southern Miss' lead to a one-score game.
Just before the end of the first quarter, Bortenschlager threw a 91-yard touchdown, then on FIU's following drive, running back Lexington Joseph scored on an 8-yard touchdown, which left the score 21-14 at halftime.
FIU (1-11, 0-8) put up over 300 yards of total offense in the first half, which Stanley credited to FIU for taking momentum.
"After they scored their first touchdown, our momentum kind of shifted down," Stanley said. "People started to get down like we were losing, but we fixed it and didn't give up too many more points."
Both teams traded field goals in the third quarter, but just before the quarter ended, Southern Miss faced a fourth and one on the Golden Panthers' 45-yard line.
Hall said his initial thought was to punt the ball, but he was quickly swayed by Gore and the rest of the offense.
"It was no question, it was no question," Gore said." It was fourth and one. We knew we were going to get it. Jason Brownlee, as soon as the quarter ended, he came off the sideline and said, 'You better get this' before coach [Hall] even said anything. That's just the amount of trust we have in each other."
JASON BROWNLEE DELIVERS
Southern Miss then put the game away after Gore's second rushing touchdown.
FIU failed to convert on fourth and one inside their own 34-yard line with less than nine minutes in the game. Gore again hit Brownlee for a 34-yard touchdown pass to push the lead 37-17 after the PAT failed.
"Frank is my dog," Brownlee said. "We work out together all the time. He knows what I can do, and I know what he can do. We've just built a bond. We're really close with each other, and he trusts me just like I trust him. On fourth and one, I told him, 'If we don't get this first down, you're going to have to see me in the locker room.' That's my boy. I hold him to a higher standard, just like he holds me to a higher standard."
For Brownlee, who started the season with a nagging lower-body injury, he is the first player since 2015 to have back-to-back games with two touchdown receptions.
"That's my guy," Gore said. "He's tough, a warrior. He never got down on us. I mean, that's my guy. I can't say enough about that guy."
Brownlee finished the season scoring in four of his last five games and finished the year with eight touchdowns and 643 receiving yards.
LOOKING TO NEXT SEASON
Despite Hall finishing the year having won two of his three games with his Superback offense, the first-year coach was adamant about bringing back the quarterback as part of his offense. But Hall did say that the Superback will be part of future packages.
"You know, desperate times are usually when extraordinary things are discovered, all throughout life," Hall said. "Your best players play quarterback. Now, we're going to play a real quarterback. We're going to have another quarterback get drafted here in the near future. We're going to have quarterbacks that play in the NFL. That's who we are.
"(The Superback will) always be a little mix of something we do now, it's kind of taken on a life of its own. It's been fun, but no matter what you do, football's a math, geography game."
This season Southern Miss has had 10 different players throw a pass from the quarterback position. Two more players have taken snaps at quarterback, which totals to 12. Listed quarterback Andrew Goldstein also threw a pass against FIU but was lined up at wide receiver, so the season total of players to have thrown a pass for USM is 11.
Even with the numerous injuries at quarterback, Southern Miss managed to close the season with two straight wins, which is the program's first winning streak since 2019.
"Man, our kids executed and played hard, and it was fun to see," Hall said. "I'm just really proud of how they've handled this year because so many programs out there -- Again, we said when we got here, we're not building a team, we're building a program. A program can withstand this and come out better on the other side. A team crumbles and embarrasses everyone that's affiliated with the University. This team only lifted people up all year long and brought joy to people, and they ended it the right way."