HATTIESBURG — Jay Hopson, in his coaching career, has won a national championship, six conference titles and has been to 12 bowl games.
In other words, since he began coaching in 1992, he’s been in some big games and has some big wins.
But on Monday, Hopson said that this past Saturday’s 44-35 victory over Kentucky — with it being his first game as the Southern Miss head football coach, with it being over an SEC team, with the Golden Eagles coming from 25 points down to win it — was one of the best in his career.
“It’s up there,” Hopson said. “It’s up there, it certainly is. It was a special night for all of us but it’s up there, it really is.
“What I loved is the Southern Miss attitude. You could see it in those guys. Looking at 70 guys, they’re like, ‘Coach, we got this.’”
Of course, it didn’t look that way for much of the game, as Kentucky blew to a 35-10 lead in the first half and led 35-17 at halftime.
Apparently, though, the Eagles didn’t believe they were out of it. They never panicked, and came up with what has to be one of the best halves of football ever played by a Southern Miss team, outscoring the host Wildcats 27-0 in the second half.
“You should’ve seen them at halftime,” Hopson said. “There was never any doubt in their eyes. You could tell they were committed to playing 60 minutes of hard-nosed, Southern Miss football, and that’s what they did.”
Going to the ground
Offensively, the Golden Eagles started running the football, with both Ito Smith (173 yards) and George Payne (100 yards) contributing. They were led by eight offensive linemen alternating in and out.
The game plan changed a little shortly before halftime.
“Let’s put the ball in play and run the ball because those guys (Kentucky) are really good on the back end (secondary),” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “You’ve got to take what they give you and you’ve got to be smart how you attack.
“Let’s chip away a little bit. You’ve got to put the ball in play underneath. That’s why we were throwing slant routes, that’s why we were throwing glance routes. Put the ball in play in pockets and try to run the football.”
Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens threw three interceptions in the first half, none in the second. He finished with 258 yards passing.
Dawson said Kentucky made great plays on two of the interceptions and the third was tipped. He said Mullens’ worst pass was one that a Kentucky player dropped.
Despite the tribulations, Dawson said Mullens stayed focused.
“The kid never wavers,” Dawson said. “The kid never blinks.”
And then there was the defense. It limited Kentucky to only 14 offensive plays in the second half, and none of them were like the five big plays in the first half that lifted the Wildcats to a 35-10 lead at one time.
“There were a couple communication things we got cleaned up to make sure everybody was on the same page schematically,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “Keep on fighting, don’t ever quit, keep on believing. We honestly felt that we could come back. We got message across at halftime, they believed it and we accomplished it.”
Place-kicker Parker Shaunfield did his part, too, kicking three field goals. For his efforts, he was named the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week.
Next up, at 6 p.m. Saturday at M.M. Roberts Stadium, is Savannah State, an FCS team that opened its season with a 54-0 loss to Georgia Southern.
“One thing that football has taught me is you better be ready every week,” Hopson said. “That’s something we have to do. As a coaching staff we were up here late (Sunday) night. We spent just as much time, if not more, preparing for Savannah State. We know we have to be ready.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Savannah State
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg