It was a great night for college football. It was a great night for normalcy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, it was not a great night for Southern Miss football.
A 40-yard run late in the fourth quarter by South Alabama running back Carlos Davis was not only the final nail in the coffin but an illustration of a frustrating night for the Golden Eagles, who entered the game as a 14.5 point favorite. Southern Miss was plagued by a poor run game, bad tackling, penalties, stalled red zone trips and big plays as the Golden Eagles suffered a 32-21 season-opening loss to South Alabama.
“You have to clean up the sloppiness,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “That’s what we have to do. We have to clean up our lineups, assignments, tackling, and execution; all those things we have to clean up. It wasn’t pretty to watch. It wasn’t.
“At the end of the day, they made big plays and we gave up big plays. That was pretty much the tale of the tape.”
South Alabama took control of momentum immediately as the Jaguars dominated the first quarter. On the first drive, South Alabama quarterback Desmond Trotter connected with Jalen Tolbert on a 73-yard touchdown on the game’s third play.
Eric Scott Jr. kept South Alabama off the board the next drive by coming up with Trotter’s first interception of the half. Despite the interception, the Jaguar offense stayed explosive as a 49-yard catch set up a 3-yard touchdown run to give South Alabama a 13-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
At the same time, Southern Miss’ run game was non-existent as it totaled -10 rushing yards in the quarter.
The Golden Eagles found some life in the second quarter as an interception by Tyler Barnes turned in a touchdown for the Golden Eagles. A 47-yard catch by wide receiver Tim Jones set up running back Don Ragsdale’s first career touchdown to get USM on the board and cut the deficit to 13-7.
Southern Miss quarback Jack Abraham and wide receiver Tim Jones were the only highlights and positives of the night as Jones hauled in six catches for 139 yards while Abraham passed 22-of-32 for 314 yards and no interceptions. Unlike the passing duo, Southern Miss’ run game accumulated 95 yards to average 2.6 yards per carry off 37 attempts.
Before halftime, Southern Miss looked to take the lead as Frank Gore Jr. pitched the ball back to Abraham, who reached the end zone. But the touchdown was changed, and the Golden Eagles settled for a 25-yard field goal to send the game into halftime at 13-10.
“The thing about tonight is that we never had a ton of momentum,” Abraham said. “Going down there, we had a few drives in the red zone but just continued to shoot ourselves in the foot.
“We can’t get down (in the red zone) like that. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, and we have a problem with punching it in. We have to emphasize that this bye week.”
Despite Southern Miss creating momentum in the second quarter and receiving the ball to start the second half, South Alabama controlled the game for the rest of the night.
In the third quarter, South Alabama’s Desmond Trotter found Tolbert again on a 31-yard touchdown while USM stalled again in the red zone to come away with a field goal to make the game 20-10.
The Jaguars capped off the quarter with a 21-yard field goal. Tolbert finished the night with six catches, 169 yards and two touchdowns.
“(Tolbert) is a good kid,” Defensive back Malik Shorts, who led Southern Miss with 11 tackles, said. “He’s a very good wide receiver but he just wanted it more tonight. We were out of position. At times he would go and high point the ball. He wanted it more than we did tonight. We have to come back and change our mindset.
“I feel like the effort was there. We were swarming the ball, but I feel like we have to want it more.”
At the start of the fourth quarter trailing 23-13, Southern Miss looked to keep the game within one possession, but another drive stalled, and the Golden Eagles failed to cash in on points as kicker Briggs Bourgeois missed a 31-yard field goal.
“We were held to field goals and missed a field goal,” Hopson said. “You want to get seven on the board when you get down there. That’s something we concentrate a lot on, and hopefully, as the season goes on, we’ll get better in the red zone.”
South Alabama returned the favor and broke out a 52-yard passing touchdown to go up 29-13. Southern Miss managed to score with six minutes left as tight end Naricuss Driver scored on a 1-yard touchdown and passed for a two-point conversion. To end the night, Davis’ late run set up a 34-yard field goal for South Alabama to seal the Jaguars’ win.