“The Rivalry in Dixie” produced its wildest chapter Saturday night in Ruston, La.
Down 27-16 with 1:30 remaining, Southern Miss (5-2, 3-1) rallied to stun Louisiana Tech 34-27 in double overtime at Joe Aillet Stadium.
The game seesawed from one extreme to another in the final moments of regulation and overtime, but USM managed to overcome a handful of crucial mistakes to pick up its third straight win.
USM sophomore quarterback Keon Howard found a moment of redemption, responding from throwing what appeared to be a disastrous interception in the first overtime to connect with Korey Robertson on a 25-yard touchdown toss in the second overtime for the decisive score.
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Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith was sacked for an 11-yard loss on second down on the following possession and he was hit again on 4th and 24 to finally put the game to an end.
“I’ve been in a few wild ones, but that one might have taken the cake,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “It’s a great team win and just amazing.”
USM senior safety Tarvarius Moore intercepted Smith on Tech’s second snap of the first possession in the first overtime, putting USM in prime position to close out the contest with a relatively short field goal.
However, Howard’s decision to change a play at the line nearly ruined USM’s shot to clinch big road win.
After handing the ball off to Tez Parks on the first play, Howard changed the call on second down from a run to a pass play. That proved to be a mistake as he was intercepted by Amik Robertson keep Tech alive at 27-27.
Hopson flashed a smile while discussing Howard’s changed play after the game, but he had an intense conversation with the quarterback immediately after the interception.
“We can smile about it now, but we said ‘No mas’ on that. We’re not doing that anymore,” Hopson said.
Southern Miss played the entire second half without senior running back Ito Smith, who was held out due to cramps according to Hopson.
Parks played the entire second half at running back, carrying 15 times for 77 yards.
He filled in well for Smith, but Parks had his own major mistake when he fumbled the ball away on 3rd and goal at the Louisiana Tech 1 with 6:27 remaining in regulation. Tech safety Secdrick Cooper recovered the fumble at the Bulldogs’ 5 with 6:10 remaining in the game.
Three plays later, Smith hooked up with Marlon Watts on an 82-yard pass play to set up a 2-yard run by Smith to build a 27-16 lead with 4:08 left.
“The emotions are all over the place,” Parks said. “I just love Southern Miss. I love my team. I love my teammates. I really do appreciate them picking me up after the costly fumble on the goal line. When it happened, I was down but they picked me it up.”
Smith had a strong first half, running 14 times for 48 yards and catching three passes for 40 yards and one score. He has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games.
USM cut the lead to 27-19 on a 49-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield, who converted on all four of his field goal tries Saturday night.
Hopson then chose to go for the onside kick and USM redshirt sophomore linebacker Paxton Schrimsher recovered the ball at the Tech 48.
However, Moore was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty to push the ball back to the USM 37.
USM quickly moved the ball up the field on an 11-yard run by Parks and a 15-yard scamper by Howard, which also drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Tech to give USM first down at the Tech 22.
On the next play, Howard found Robertson in the end zone.
On the two-point conversion, Howard found a wide open Jay’Shawn Washington in the back of the end zone to tie the game at 27-27 with 31 seconds remaining.
The Howard-to-Robertson connection proved vital throughout the game with the redshirt junior from Greenwood pulling in nine catches for 127 yards and two scores.
“I was just playing ball, making my reads,” Howard said. “Luckily, I found Korey a lot more than anybody else. Kudos to Korey.”
Howard finished 32-of-53 for 301 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Tech survived solely on big pass plays to stay in the game as Smith struggled to find consistency, completing just 11 of 28 tosses for 194 yards and one interception.
The USM secondary frustrated the Bulldogs all night.
“We just tried to eliminate one of their best receivers, (Teddy Veal),” Moore said. “We tried to make them use their other weapons to beat us passing.”
With North Texas falling 69-31 at FAU on Saturday night, USM moved into a tie with the Mean Green (4-3, 3-1) atop the C-USA West Division.
Louisiana Tech dropped to 3-4 and 1-2.