Boy, how little we knew.
An eye-popping 106 points and 1204 yards later, the visitors from Hattiesburg emerged from the defensive wreckage victorious in a 56-50 shootout. Jalen Richard torched the Bobcat front six for 230 yards and four touchdowns, and USM quarterback Nick Mullens added another 333 yards and four touchdowns through the air for the visiting Golden Eagles.
The game started out with the visitors racing out to a quick 21-3 lead after two touchdown passes from Mullens and Richard's first touchdown run of the night at the goal line. However, the homestanding Bobcats showed some fight and stiffened up on defense. They stopped USM on their next three possessions, including an excellent fumble takeaway that fired up the 27,252 fans in attendance.
Texas State's offense, meanwhile, woke up. Tyler Jones (for Heisman) went nuts and raced through USM's defense for a 35 yard touchdown run. Then he led another drive down the field for another touchdown to Lawrence White and a two point conversion pass out to the flat to Robert Lowe, who drove it in. Then, after the fumble, he floated a duck to Demun Mercer from the 32 yard line. Despite a USM defender getting his hand on the pass to tip it, the ball bounced up in the air and right into the hands of Mercer, who grabbed the ball in stride and strode into the end zone amidst a delirious crowd.
But despite the 18 point comeback and taking a 25-21 lead into halftime, the winds of fate were to swing strictly back in the direction of the Golden Eagles.
After not converting on their opening drive, Texas State punted to Southern Miss in their own territory. The Golden Eagles then proceeded to obviously fumble the ball, which the Bobcats then scooped and scored.
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At least, they should've scooped and scored. Instead, the Sun Belt referee crew blew the play dead because of, I kid you not, an "inadvertent whistle." Which meant USM got to keep the ball, and Dennis Franchione lost his cool on the refs, who added insult to injury with an equally awful unsportsmanlike penalty.
There were also a slew of other bad calls that more often than not went against Texas State, including a missed roughing the passer call where USM got in a cheap shot on Tyler Jones, and the refs frankly making something up called an "invalid fair catch signal" by Bobcat kick returner Brandon Smith when he didn't even put his hand up in the air.
Bobcat head coach Dennis Franchione was heated at the refs after the game.
Franchione on the whistle that reversed the fumble: "It made my blood pressure a little high." #TXST— Star Sports (@UStar_Sports) September 20, 2015
Franchione continued: "Those are foolish errors that shouldn’t happen, but they did." #TXST— Star Sports (@UStar_Sports) September 20, 2015
If the Sun Belt Conference has any shame whatsoever, they won't fine Franchione for those (as always, understated) comments. Because he's absolutely right. Tonight's refs certainly won't make the Sun Belt any more popular among an already skeptical Texas State fanbase.
But Texas State's problems went deeper than shoddy refereeing. Southern Miss gashed the Bobcat defense throughout the second half with an uncomplicated suite of play calls--a run up the middle with Richard, a deep route from Mullens to Casey Martin or DJ Thompson, or a screen out of the backfield to running back Ito Smith. Yet Texas State couldn't stop the Golden Eagles from scoring once in the second half until late in the game, when USM took a safety in the end zone rather than punt to avoid a potential return for a touchdown.
USM's speed and athleticism flummoxed Texas State's defense and caused numerous arm tackles and poor angles taken to the ball. However, the Golden Eagles' defense wasn't much better. Although they did get a few stops when it mattered--partially because Texas State was unwilling to throw the ball deep except in the most obvious of circumstances--the Bobcat offense still mostly torched their counterparts.
The 56-50 loss wasted a heroic performance by Bobcat quarterback Tyler Jones, who tried to engineer a second straight comeback in the 2nd half as he led three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. The junior quarterback was responsible for a stunning 470 yards of offense (160 rushing, 310 passing), *five* touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing), and no turnovers. He could've done even more if his receivers hadn't dropped crucial balls over the middle or his coaches hadn't unnecessarily limited the offense to screens and quick passes in the flat in the third quarter. Not scoring a touchdown in the third quarter certainly didn't help the Bobcat comeback effort.
Southern Miss improves to 2-1, and their bowl hopes suddenly just got a lot brighter. Texas State, on the other hand, needed to go undefeated against a beatable home schedule to have a shot at 8 wins and a bowl. That didn't happen, and with the way this defense is looking, it doesn't look like a bowl game will be realistic for the Bobcats barring rapid improvement on that side of the ball.
Texas State (1-2) visits Houston next Saturday at 7 PM, while Southern Miss heads to Lincoln for an 11 am kickoff at Nebraska.