Defense jumps Southern Miss ‘from zero to 100 real quick’ in win over Marshall

By CAMAL PETRO,

HATTIESBURG – By the time the second quarter ticked down to less than three minutes, Southern Miss searched for something good to happen Saturday against Marshall. 

Defensive players, junior Ty Williams and senior Darian Yancey, stepped up at the perfect time to spark the Golden Eagles to a 26-24 win over the Thunder Herd. Williams intercepted a pass to set up a Golden Eagles touchdown, and Yancey scooped up a fumble and returned it 17 yards for a score.

That allowed Southern Miss to grab a 17-10 halftime lead after trailing 10-3 just minutes before.

“I feel like it gave us momentum,” Williams said. “We jumped from zero to 100 real quick, so I knew that was a big boost. I knew our offense would click as soon as that happened.”

The Nasty Bunch defense forced four Marshall turnovers in the contest to set up the Southern Miss offense with short fields for scores. The offense needed the help, too, because Southern Miss’ offense was sputtering through the first 27 minutes of game time.

After taking the opening kickoff 39 yards on 12 plays, Southern Miss converted a field 45-yard field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. Its next five possessions, however, ended with three punts and two fumbles to allow Marshal to grab the 10-3 lead.

On those five drives, Southern Miss totaled only 11 yards, with two of those drives ending with negative yardage. After Williams’ interception, though, the Eagles traveled 46 yards on five plays, capped off by a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tate Whatley to Quez Watkins to tie the game at 10.

“We’ve been practicing crossing routes, and I knew I was singled on the back side,” Williams said. “At the same time, when he ran over, I looked at the quarterback and the quarterback was looking at the other receiver coming over. I just jumped in front of it and tried to take it from there.”

Yancey’s fumble return for a touchdown came moments later. The 6-foot-1 linebacker said as soon as he saw sophomore Jacques Turner strip the Marshall quarterback, he reverted back to what he’s practiced every day.

“It was just a scoop-and-score drill, just like any day at practice,” he said.

After Southern Miss starting quarterback Jack Abraham warmed up in pads, Whatley started his first career game Saturday. He finished with 134 passing yards and a touchdown on 16-of-25 attempts and he added 40 rushing yards on 25 attempts.

“What a competitor,” Hopson said. “The young man fought, scratched and clawed. The thing about Tate is he’s such a tough guy. He’s a true Southern Miss guy. You saw him get hit a few times and digging, fighting and clawing for another yard. He was doing everything he could to keep a play going.”

The offense averaged just 3 yards per play and 2 yards per rush, but it put together a 94-yard, 13-play drive in the fourth quarter to a take a 26-17 lead on Marshall. Facing a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Whatley tried twice to push the ball in himself, and he finally did on third down to get the score.

For what it’s worth, Hopson knew Whatley would start the game on Monday. 

“We knew Tate would be our starter,” Hopson said. “That’s just how you play it.”

Abraham is OK with a bone bruise, Hopson added. He hopes his starter will be back Monday ready to roll.

Southern Miss (4-4) travels to UAB next week for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff in Birmingham. It’ll have two more games left on the schedule after that, and there’s potentially a 12th game to be added in early December.