South Alabama did what they needed to win. It wasn't pretty at times, but they return to Mobile, Alabama with a 23-13 win over Kent State.
"This is a big win for us on the road," head coach Joey Jones stated. "We came up here last time and didn't play well, but we came out and really played well early in the game. The thing I am most proud of is we finished the game. In our first game last year we let someone drive and score, and now look at the difference - just that mentality of we're not going to get beat late in the game. I'm so proud of the defense for stopping them, and proud of the offense for driving down and scoring late in the game."
The first score came at the expense of the Golden Flashes' quarterback, who was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone resulting in a safety with 7:58 left in the first quarter. After the free kick to the Jaguars, USA methodically drove the ball down the field. Brandon Bridge was helped by a pass interference in the end zone negating an interception and giving USA a first and goal at the two yard line. Bridge would connect with Shavarez Smith for the one yard touchdown to extend their lead to 9-0 with 2:46 left in the opening quarter.
Jay Jones would get the first of two touchdowns with 8:01 left in the second quarter after Bridge connected with Marvin Shinn for a 58 yard gain to the Kent State one yard line. That would be the last points by the Jaguars until late in the fourth quarter.
Kent State's offense started to figure out the Jaguar defense late in the first half as they pieced together a touchdown drive of 13 plays covering 69 yards taking 6:20 off the clock. However the swinging gate 2-point attempt failed leaving the Golden Flashes trailing 16-6, which would be the halftime score.
USA struggled the entire second half. The offense struggled to move the ball and the defense struggled to stop the Kent State offense. Defensively USA would bend but not break, but each time the offense could not sustain a drive to rest the defense. The Flashes would finally hit a big play to start the fourth quarter when quarterback Colin Reardon found Casey Pierce open for a 44-yard touchdown pass to cut the Jaguar lead to three points, 16-13.
After a three-and-out by the Jaguar offense, Kent State continued to move the ball on their next possession. The Jaguar defense stopped the Flashes at the 15 yard line and forced a field goal attempt, but the 32 yard attempt from the left hashmark would curve left giving the Jaguars a sigh of relief with 8:00 left in the game.
With an unsportsmanlike penalty after the kick, USA would take possession at their own 35 yard line instead of the 20 yard line. Those 15 yards would be big as the Jaguar offense went three-and-out again but flipped field position with a punt to the Kent State 10 yard line.
The Jag defense, refreshed by the missed field goal on the last Kent State possession, forced a three-and-out of their own. A poor punt would set them up at their own 46 yard line with 4:04 left in the game and a chance to ice it.
South Alabama came up big when needed, something they struggled with last season. With a steady dose of Jay Jones, the Jags got first down after first down. Facing 3rd and 6, Jay Jones would take another handoff around the left side, breaking a couple of tackles and would not stop until he was in the end zone to seal the game with a 23-13 lead with 1:12 left in the game.
Montell Garner would close the door on any chance of a comeback with an interception of Reardon with just over a minute left.
Brandon Bridge, in his first start, completed 15-of-25 for 161 yards and a touchdown. Danny Woodson caught three passes for 26 yards, Smith also caught three for 18 yards and a touchdown. Shinn led the Jags with 58 yards received on his one catch. Jay Jones led the rushing attack with 102 yards on 21 carries. Kendall Houston added 46 yards on 13 carries. Bridge gained 41 yards on 13 carries.
Davin Hawkins led the Jaguar defense with nine tackles and a sack. Jimmie Gipson also had a sack, his only tackle for the game. Garner's interception was the only turnover of the game.
Colin Reardon completed 17-of-40 attempts for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Pierce led all receivers with four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Nate Holley rushed 14 times for 47 yards as Kent State's leading rusher again in the absence of Trayion Durham.
This is the first season-opening win in the last three seasons and it's just in time as the Jaguars host Mississippi State next Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The Bulldogs struggled in the first half against UAB, but a 21 point third quarter put them in front for good. I'm sure Jaguar head coach Joey Jones will call his friend and former defensive coordinator now UAB head coach Bill Clark for information about the Bulldogs.
The only thing that could make the game next weekend any bigger would be if ESPN Gameday announced they would be broadcasting from Mobile on Saturday morning. While it may be a long shot, it's not outside the realm of possibility. The Gameday crew went to FCS North Dakota State last year and Bleacher Report picked USA to host Gameday on September 13 back in July when they were trying to predict every ESPN Gameday location for the 2014 season.
Wherever Gameday lands next weekend, South Alabama coaches, players, and fans are all hyped to host an SEC team at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.