The Southern Miss football team appeared to find new life in El Paso Saturday night.
A week after losing 37-31 to Troy in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles rebounded nicely with a 34-7 victory at UTEP in the Conference USA opener for both teams on Saturday.
USM took control of the game with 21 points in the second quarter and finished the game with 31 unanswered points, moving to 3-1 and 1-0 in league play.
"Things don’t always go wonderful but I thought our guys kept fighting, kept pluggin’,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “I thought our defense played well and kept us in there. We were able to finish off the second quarter strong to give ourselves a little bit of a lead, a huge play by Curtis (Mikell) in the third quarter that was a big momentum shifter.
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Junior running back Ito Smith hit the 100-yard mark for the fourth consecutive game. He finished with 16 carries for 108 yards and four receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley and Mikell, a junior cornerback, both had big days on defense for the Golden Eagles. Bradley constantly harassed the UTEP quarterbacks while Mikell pulled in a career high two interceptions, including a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown with 8:01 left in the third quarter.
Mikell became the first USM player with two interceptions in a game since cornerback Marquese Wheaton did it in 2011.
“He is a player, he is one of those guys who you feel like you have two starters out there because he can do so many things,” Hopson said of Mikell. “Again, just a couple tremendous plays that were a difference for us.”
Bradley found his way in the offensive backfield all night and finished with six tackles, including one sack.
Senior safety D'Nerius Antoine led USM with eight tackles.
USM (3-1, 1-0) had another sluggish start on offense and trailed 7-3 after one quarter, but put up 21 unanswered points in the second quarter to lead 24-7 at the half. Senior quarterback Nick Mullens hit just five of his first 14 passes, but finished the first half 12-of-21 for 159 yards and three touchdowns.
USM mostly kept the ball on the ground in the second half and Mullens finished 16-of-27 for 173 yards and three scores. He avoided an interception in a game for the first time this season and threw a touchdown in his 20th consecutive game.
Mullens' touchdown tosses were to Smith, Allenzae Staggers and D.J. Thompson.
Other than one big drive, UTEP star running back Aaron Jones was mostly bottled up by the USM defense. He finished with 16 carries for 127 yards and one touchdown.
The UTEP passing game proved stagnant as Zack Greenlee and Ryan Metz combined to complete 14 of 28 passes for 113 yards and two interceptions.
USM kicker Parker Shaunfield kicked field goals of 34 and 46 yards to stay perfect on the season at 6-for-6.
USM has a good chance to move to 2-0 in C-USA play when it hosts a struggling Rice squad (0-4, 0-2) at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Roberts Stadium.