The Southern Miss offense put to rest whatever concerns there were surrounding the passing game Saturday night.
USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens and junior receiver Allenzae Staggers both set new program records in a 44-28 victory over Rice Saturday night at Roberts Stadium.
USM (4-1, 2-0) gashed the Rice defense regularly to set a new school record with 702 yards of total offense before an announced crowd of 28,325. USM had five plays of 57 yards or more.
Mullens set a new program single-game record for passing yardage and became the first quarterback in USM history to throw for over 500 yards. He completed 25 of 36 passes for 591 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
The previous record was held by Austin Davis, who threw for 461 in 2008.
"It was fun out there," Mullens said. "They were playing a little uptight so we knew we'd have our opportunities. It was just a matter of connecting on those opportunities. I just threw it up there and let them go get it."
Staggers established a new USM single-game receiving yardage record with six catches for 292 yards and three scores.
"Nick pushes me every day at practice," Staggers said. "He finally trusted in me tonight and I had to help him."
The previous record-holder was Kendrick Lee, who had 260 yards receiving at Houston in 1996.
Mullens found Staggers on three touchdown tosses of 75 yards or more:
Mullens hit a wide open Staggers over the middle for a 75-yard touchdown at the 8:52 mark of the second quarter to give the Eagles a 10-7 lead.
Mullens then found Staggers racing down the sideline on an 81-yard toss with 14:09 left in the third quarter.
The duo saved the longest score for last when Mullens hit the former East Mississippi Community College star for a 93-yard touchdown with 9:46 remaining in the third quarter.
"It was amazing," a smiling Staggers said. "I'm still surprised."
It marked the second consecutive season that Mullens has put in a dominant performance against the Owls. He played in only the first half of a 65-10 win at Rice last season, but still managed 386 yards and five touchdowns.
In only six quarters against Rice the last two seasons, Mullens totaled 977 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
Mullens couldn't put a finger on why he has had the Owls' number.
"I'm not sure honestly," he said. "I've got all the respect for coach (David) Bailiff. They recruited me. I took a few visits there and I loved the place. I don't know."
The USM passing game had been inconsistent through the first four games of the season, but Saturday's contest should be a nice confidence booster going forward.
"That makes us a balanced football team when we can run it and throw it," USM head coach Jay Hopson said. "We can be dangerous."
USM junior running back Ito Smith failed to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground for the first time this season. He ran 19 times for 77 yards and one touchdown. He also had four catches for 64 yards.
USM senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley set a new career high in sacks with 3.5, coming up just shy of the school record of four.
"We executed at a high level," Bradley said of the USM pass rush. "There was nothing too special about it. You didn't have to be Superman. We were all getting to the ball."
USM had seven sacks total.
USM led 13-7 at halftime and Rice (0-5, 0-3) made it a game well into the second half.
Rice quarterback Tyler Stehling hit Zach Wright for an 11-yard touchdown with 14:52 remaining to cut the USM lead to 34-21.
USM had a quick response with Mullens connecting with D.J. Thompson on a 9-yard touchdown pass to make it 41-21 with 12:37 left and put the game out of reach.
Southern Miss makes a potentially tricky trip to Texas-San Antonio (1-3, 0-1) for an 11 a.m. game this upcoming Saturday.