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Southern Miss humbles UTSA, 31-29

The Golden Eagles out-dueled the Roadrunners in UTSA’s conference opener, handing them their first lost of the season.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Southern Miss out-schemed UTSA and put up 24 second half points to pull away from the Roadrunners in the Alamodome. Fueled behind an exceptional performance from sophomore quarterback Keon Howard and a stout defensive showing, Southern Miss was able to expose UTSA’s key weaknesses on both sides of the ball.

Mainly, the Golden Eagles brought about a defensive look that shutdown a running attack the Roadrunners typically hang their hat on. They did so by virtually never playing a safety out in the secondary, and instead stacking the box and pummeling UTSA upfront.

The ferocity of that attack limited UTSA’s rushing game to just three yards a carry and 102 yards on the day. In fact, UTSA’s leading rusher Jalen Rhodes was held to just 28 yards on 14 attempts (2.0 avg).

Senior cornerback Tavarius Moore led the corps with 11 tackles (8 solo) including one behind the line of scrimmage.

The biggest success of Southern Miss’ defense was their ability to stall UTSA’s drives and shutter their momentum, forcing the Roadrunners to go 8-for-16 in third down situations.

The Roadrunners marched 56 yards on their opening drive only to settle for a 38-yard field goal from placekicker Jared Sackett following an incomplete pass on 3rd and 7.

A more crucial example happened with just under ten minutes remaining in the game while Southern Miss was up 28-20. UTSA defensive end Eric Banks forced Keon Howard to fumble and defensive tackle Baylen Baker recovered the loose ball, giving the Roadrunners possession just 32 yards from the endzone. The offense gained five yards after the fumble recovery.

A 44-yard Sackett field goal put the Roadrunners within five, but the tone throughout the Alamodome had already sombered.

Even more so following USM’s next drive, where they ate 5:37 off the clock and gained 69 yards downfield, with placekicker Parker Shaunfield hitting a 24-yard field goal to put the point difference at eight. That would prove to be the difference as a late Roadrunner touchdown ended with a botched two-point conversion attempt, where quarterback Dalton Sturm failed to connect with receiver Josh Stewart on a double-covered quick slant.

It wasn’t the first telling of miscommunication on the offensive side of the field. The quarterback found himself under the most pressure he’s seen since last season. With the running game obsolete, the passing pocket appeared to be collapsing each of the 43 times Sturm threw the ball.

Minus a few overthrows on deep passes, Sturm threw the ball decently, but UTSA’s receivers dropped several of his throws. Sturm also had his first interception of the year on a pass to Josh Stewart, in what appeared to be complete confusion on what the proper route was.

Sturm finished 27-for-43 with a career-high 367 yards and three touchdowns of his own, with junior wideout Greg Campbell Jr. leading receivers with 10 receptions for 108 yards. However, those numbers are deceitful as UTSA was never able to land a really explosive offensive play. USM, on the other hand, had plenty.

Howard had a 48-yard pass to Quez Hawkins in the third quarter to put the Golden Eagles up 21-13. He completed 75% of his passes and finished 15-for-20 with 212 yards and three touchdowns. He had an additional 29 yards on the ground, coupled with Golden Eagle running back Ito Smith’s 178 yards rushing. Howard played extremely admirably after starting quarterback Kwadra Griggs went down with a hand injury.

Smith’s explosive play was an 89-yard, untouched sprint into the endzone to start the fourth quarter, giving USM a 28-13 lead. It felt like the proverbial dagger as Roadrunner fans began to leave the stadium shortly afterward.

USM’s offense found a lot of success down the middle of the field and really pushed around UTSA’s linebackers. There were holes all over the center that they exposed and took advantage of. All in all, Southern Miss’ coaching staff brilliantly out schemed UTSA’s. UTSA managed to hang around solely off talented playmaking.

Even when UTSA was winning the first half, it felt as if the Roadrunners were not in control of the game. And honestly, they never really were. USM executed a perfect defensive scheme that UTSA couldn’t account for, and by the time they made adjustments late in the second half, USM had already opened the gap too far.

The final score doesn’t truly reflect how soundly Southern Miss handled the Roadrunners.

On top of dropping their perfect record, UTSA paid a heavy price on the injury report, with the Roadrunners going down to their fourth string left guard following an injury to Jordan Wright. Reed Darragh also went down early, forcing true freshman Dominic Pastucci into action. Several other Roadrunners appeared dinged up or left the game for periods of time.

This was a great bounceback conference win for the Golden Eagles following last week’s loss to North Texas, UTSA’s next opponent and sole leader of the western division. Southern Miss improves to 1-1 in C-USA and 3-2 overall, while UTSA drops to 0-1 in C-USA and 3-1 overall. The Golden Eagles take on a winless UTEP team next week.