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Tolbert leads South Alabama in opening night shocker over Southern Miss, 32-21

Jalen Tolbert racks up 169 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns as the Jaguars win their first opener since 2016.

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Due to the cancelation of the majority of Week 1 games, the college football world cast its eyes upon the happenings in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on opening night. Coming off a 2-10 season and pegged as two-touchdown underdogs, South Alabama entered the 2020 season with a major statement in a 32-21 upset victory over Southern Miss on the road.

South Alabama’s most significant win of the Steve Campbell era snapped a 15-game road losing streak for the program — a slump which lasted since October 2017. But thanks to the workings of quarterback Desmond Trotter and wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, the Jaguars are now the first team to beat another FBS program in the young season.

Trotter and Tolbert both experienced their breakout game last November in the season finale, an upset win over Arkansas State. In his fifth start as a Jaguar, Trotter built on that 279-yard, 4-touchdown performance with a career-high 299 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tolbert, the recipient of all four touchdowns in the Arkansas State contest, carried over his hot streak by hauling in six receptions for two touchdowns and a career-best 169 yards. The junior wide receiver now has totaled 313 yards and six touchdowns in his latest two outings, which both resulted in upset wins.

While the duo shined on offense, South Alabama’s relentless run defense proved to be the defining factor of the game. Southern Miss was held below 100 yards and only averaged 2.6 yards per attempt, with leading rusher Frank Gore Jr. attaining 32 yards in his collegiate debut. The Jaguars’ star linebackers Nick Mobley and Riley Cole combined for 27 tackles, while the entire defense wrapped up for five tackles in the backfield and forced Southern Miss to win through the air.

Not only did South Alabama make a statement in the victory, but the Jaguars opened the game with one. A 73-yard connection from Trotter to his star receiver occurred 63 seconds in, and Tolbert sprinted down the sideline to create a 6-0 lead. The Jaguars’ offense kept their foot on the gas to close the first quarter and managed to reach the end zone once more before the end of the period. The second touchdown followed up a perfect 49-yard bomb from Trotter to wide receiver Jalen Wayne — another Jaguar wideout who finished above the 100-yard receiving mark. One play later, Terrion Avery punched it in from the 2-yard line to push South Alabama head by 13.

The Jaguars could have extended their first half advantage to three touchdowns, but Trotter’s second and final interception of the game provided new life to Southern Miss. Quarterback Jack Abraham entered a groove at the end of the second quarter and completed his final eight passes of the frame. His most impressive dime during the streak was a 47-yard streak to All-C-USA receiver Tim Jones, who sprinted inside the 5-yard line to set up an eventual touchdown. Southern Miss entered the locker rooms trailing 13-10 at the break in Hattiesburg.

The major turning point of the night did not come without controversy. On a 2nd and 8 in Southern Miss territory in the third quarter, Trotter avoided a pass rush by firing the ball away to his immediate left. The pass resembled a lateral, but the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass. If ruled a fumble Southern Miss clearly recovered it, but the play stood as initially called. Intentional grounding could have reasonably been issued as well, but South Alabama held its field position on the 31-yard line. One play later, Trotter air-mailed a pass to Tolbert in the end zone to extend the Jaguars’ lead to 10. Overall, it was a brutal sequence for head coach Jay Hopson and his Golden Eagles.

With a 10-point deficit in the early moments of the fourth quarter, Southern Miss suffered a major lapse by shanking a 31-yard field goal well below the uprights. Trotter kept the energy alive and led the upset-hungry Jaguars down the field, but ongoing shoulder and hamstring problems hampered his availability. Backup quarterback Chance Lovertich checked in to complete the possession. Lovertich only threw three times Thursday night, but he was flawless on one of them — a 52-yard strike to Kawaan Baker to lift the Jaguars to a 29-13 lead with 10:20 remaining. South Alabama couldn’t extend its lead to three possessions, however, due to special teams woes. After mishandling the snap on an extra point in the first quarter, the Jaguars missed the crucial extra point in the fourth quarter to leave another easy point on the board.

Southern Miss flew down the field and cut it to a one-possession game in a matter of minutes with a 42-yard pass from Abraham to Jones jumpstarting the drive. South Alabama’s run defense didn’t allow anything easy and forced the Golden Eagles to wait until 4th and 1 on the goal line before they scored their final touchdown of the night. Southern Miss elected to use an unorthodox wildcat formation on its 2-point attempt and succeeded, trailing 29-21 with 5:42 of clock left.

But a “Beast Mode”-esque 40-yard run by South Alabama running back Carlos Davis eventually sealed things by pushing the Jaguars into field goal range. The Jaguars nearly doubled the Golden Eagles’ rushing output, and Davis led the way with 85. His shedding tackle ability set up a 34-yard field goal by Diego Guajardo to secure the upset for South Alabama.

Extending from last November, the Jaguars are on their first two-game winning streak since 2017. Additionally, Thursday night’s victory marked the program’s first 1-0 start since 2016 when it upset Mississippi State in Starkville. The Jaguars return to action on Saturday, September 12 when Tulane visits their home venue in Mobile. Meanwhile, Southern Miss must sit on its 0-1 record for an additional week, retaking the field in Hattiesburg on September 19 when Louisiana Tech enters town.