HATTIESBURG – The Southern Miss football team moved within two wins of bowl eligibility by easily dispatching of Texas-San Antonio, 32-10, on homecoming Saturday night at Roberts Stadium.
The Golden Eagles improved to 4-3 and 2-1 eight days after getting thumped 31-10 at Marshall.
The offense struggled at times in the red zone and turned the ball over four times, but mostly moved the ball with ease before a crowd of 28,745. The Eagles had 556 total yards compared to 205 by UTSA (1-6, 1-2).
“I'm proud of our guys,” USM coach Todd Monken said. “We had an emotional game last week at Marshall, a team that's been the dominant team in our league last two years. You go up there and don't play your best and to bounce back this week … the effort was unbelievable. We had more offensive linemen downfield making blocks. Our defense harassed (UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm). That is what you want to be about.”
Southern Miss had two players account for over 100 yards receiving and two running backs rush for over 100 yards.
D.J. Thompson caught six passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Mike Thomas, who became the first USM player ever with four consecutive games of 100 yards receiving, had five receptions for 103 yards and a score. In the ground game, Jalen Richard ran 25 times for 115 yards with a score and Ito Smith had 14 carries for 101 yards.
USM reached the four-win mark for the first time since it went 12-2 in Larry Fedora's final season as head coach in 2011. For a senior like Richard, the game is a lot more enjoyable after winning a total of four games over the three previous seasons.
“I've been here since the 2012 season and I had not played in a win until last year against North Texas” Richard said. “I'm having fun. Those past three years, you tried to make fun happen because everything was going wrong. The fun is happening. We're smiling. Coach Monken is energetic. Just as a team, we're having fun playing.”
USM quarterback Nick Mullens completed 23-of-31 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns, but had a season-high three interceptions.
It was the USM defense that was the most dominant unit on the field Saturday. UTSA had 73 yards with 8:56 left in the third quarter and made just its third completion of the game midway through the third.
A week after putting up 261 total yards and four passing touchdowns against Louisiana Tech, Sturm was constantly pummeled by the USM defense. He was sacked five times and took numerous other hits. He finished 6-of-22 passing for 66 yards and a touchdown with two lost fumbles.
There was a time or two when it appeared unlikely would Strum would get up after a hit, but he did each time.
“After some of those hits, you asked 'Why do you keep getting up? Just lay there for some time,” USM defensive end Dylan Bradley said with a grin.
Middle linebacker Brian Anderson led the way with a pair of sacks and Bradley registered his team-leading sixth of the season.
“Unbelievable, great effort,” Monken said of his defense. “It's been back-to-back weeks. We're only getting better on defense. I think our guys are athletic. I think they dominated the front. We've got a special group. We really do.”
While the offense continues to pile up the yardage, it's the USM defense that gives the team hope of competing for a C-USA West title.
There has been improvement in yardage allowed over the last three games and an average of 241 yards given up over the last two games.
“Our defense has really grown,” Richard said. “Those guys are taking in coaching and worked hard in the summer. They've gotten stronger. I just think our defense can be a pest for any quarterback.”
USM, Louisiana Tech and Rice are all tied atop the West division with records of 2-1 in league play.
“If you win every game in the west, it's hard not to win the West,” Monken said. “We just have to keep winning games in the West. You have everything in front of us that we want.”
Southern Miss will be a big favorite when it travels to Charlotte for an 11 a.m. on game on Saturday. The 49ers are in their first season in C-USA and still transitioning to the FBS level.