Despite the final score of 34-16, Southern Miss looked like a much improved team in the season opener versus SEC foe Mississippi State Saturday night.
Mississippi State thought they struck first on their opening possession but a heads up play by D'Nerius Antoine to strip the Bulldogs wide receiver of the ball resulted in a touchback and Southern Miss football. After going three-and-out, the Golden Eagles were handed a bit of luck as their punt was mishandled with Southern Miss recovering on the Bulldogs 11-yard line. A Stephen Brauchle field goal gave Southern Miss a 3-0 lead.
The Bulldogs and Golden Eagles proceeded to trade touchdowns, Mississippi State's coming on special teams and Southern Miss' coming on offense, before Mississippi State took the lead for good with a 5-play, 21-yard touchdown drive. That drive that put the Bulldogs up 14-10 was the result of a block punt.
Trailing 14-10 at the half, Southern Miss gave up the first 10 points of the second hald before hitting a couple of field goals to cut the Mississippi State lead to 27-16 with 13:01 left in the game.
That was as close as Southern Miss would get as a 7-yard Prescott touchdown run with 5:55 left in the game put Mississippi State up by the final score of 34-16.
The Golden Eagles should bounce back in fine form with a Week Two matchup versus FCS foe Austin Peay, one of the worst FCS teams yearly.
Ito Smith: Last season's leading rusher was electric with the football despite his surprisingly low number of touches. Smith broke a 44-yard run versus the Bulldog defense and looked very good in his eight carries for 69 yards. Smith also broke open a 37-yard kickoff return in his one return opportunity. It feels odd to say but get the ball in Smith's hands more often.
The Defense: In the end, Southern Miss gave up 34 points, but the defense was put in some very tough situations and held Mississippi State to field goals. Two of Mississippi State's scoring drives were 21 yards or fewer and the Bulldogs also scored a special teams touchdown that cannot count against the Southern Miss defense. The JUCO talent was especially evident in the first three quarters as the Golden Eagles held Dak Prescott in check.
The Passing Game: Head coach Todd Monken was very coy when discussing who would get the start in game one of the season. In the end, he went with incumbent starter Nick Mullens and the junior rewarded him with a 300+ yard performance. 11 different players caught a pass for Southern Miss with redshirt freshman Korey Robertson (6/81/0TD) making a very impressive Golden Eagles debut.
Time of Possession: The Golden Eagles held the ball for 37:45 while Mississippi State only had the ball for 22:15. That huge time of possession discrepency did not effect the final score of this game but will be very important when facing the high flying offenses of Conference USA this fall. What is amazing is that it was done despite gaining only 102 total yards on the ground on 36 carries for a 2.8 yards per carry average.
Special Teams Blunders: A blocked punt resulting in Mississippi State starting on the Southern Miss 21-yard line and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown cannot happen in an upset bid. Those two plays eventually turned into 14 points and all but four points of the final margin. Special teams miscues are unacceptable and if Southern Miss wants to get to a bowl this fall, they must be remedied.
Bad Decisions At Quarterback: For the most part Mullens did a good job behind center, but on several occasions he either missed wide open receivers downfield or made poor decisions with his throws. A second half interception that should not have been even attempted and a wide open Casey Martin missed were very detrimental to the upset bid. Mullens does not excell with arm strength so he must be smarter with his decision making ability on the field.
A Laydown Late In The Game: I hate to call a team out on it but once Mississippi State forced a late game punt while leading 27-16, the Golden Eagles defense barely put up a fight to Prescott. The 6-play, 82-yard drive officially put the game out of reach but it was clear that the defennse was not playing with the same intensity shown earlier in the game.
Player of the Game: Ito Smith. The running back was not used as much as other players but gave the team a desperately needed spark when down 24-10 that was extremely beneficial in keeping Southern Miss in the game.
Play of the Game: The opening drive fumble forced by D'Nerius Antoine and recovered by Devonta Foster in the end zone. That play gave the Golden Eagles confidence that things could go their way versus Mississippi State.