Nick Mullens sets Southern Miss record
The Southern Miss football team exorcised the demons of a five-game losing streak to Marshall Saturday night.
USM pulled away from the Thundering Herd late for a 24-14 victory at Roberts Stadium before an announced homecoming crowd 31,275.
"That was one of the goals we had for ourselves this year, to beat Marshall," USM senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley said. "We preached it two weeks straight, we've got to beat this team. Tonight was the start of the playoffs. You win and it's one step closer to the conference championship."
The victory ended a two-game skid for USM (5-3, 3-1) and put the team one win shy of reaching bowl eligibility for a second consecutive season.
USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens also set a new program record for career passing yardage, surpassing a mark of 10,892. He completed 22 of 40 passes for 300 yards and one touchdown to push his career mark to 11,057.
After struggling to prevent the big play in the last games, the Southern Miss defense was the best unit on the field Saturday. Marshall was limited to 11 first downs and 226 total yards.
Marshall (2-6, 1-3) managed to convert on just one of 13 third-down conversions and punted 10 times.
"We've got to limit the big plays and put them in situations where on third down, we know in our minds that can't nobody block us up front," Bradley said.
Bradley again led the way on the USM defensive line, registering four tackles and 1.5 sacks to bring his season total to 6.5.
Bradley also helped put the game to rest with a big play on special teams, blocking Amoreto Curraj's 43-yard field goal try with 5:53 left in the game.
"We got great push and when I saw the ball still on the ground I just put my hand up and it hit me," Bradley said.
Four plays later, Ito Smith ran 40 yards for his second touchdown of the night to make it 24-7 with 4:23 remaining.
Smith had one of his better games of the season with 26 carries for 140 yards and two touchdowns, giving him five 100-yard touchdown games this season. He has scored at least one touchdown in 13 consecutive games.
"Ito is a player," USM head coach Jay Hopson said. "Sometimes, Ito can make something out of nothing. You look in there and say 'Oh man, it's closed,' but he puts his foot in the turf and jets out the other side and gains 6 yards. He makes plays. He's tough."
Marshall tacked on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Chase Litton to Michael Clark with 2:26 left, but the outcome wasn't in doubt by that point of the game.
On a night when drops plagued the Southern Miss receivers early, it was junior wideout Allenzae Staggers who proved to be the most reliable target for Mullens. Staggers finished with seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown.
While battling through double-coverage, Staggers reached up to pull in a 4-yard touchdown pass from Mullens with 12:08 remaining for a 17-7 lead.
"I was really just trying to give him a chance," Mullens said. "Sometimes luck goes on your side. You just trust your playmakers to make big plays."
USM came out hot on offense to start the game as Smith capped a 15-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run at the 9:29 mark of the first quarter.
A 44-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield, who had his run of 12 consecutive makes come to an end later in the game, pushed the USM lead to 10-0 with 14:07 left in the first half.
A 5-yard touchdown run by Keion Davis allowed Marshall to get back in the game at 10-7 headed into the half.
The USM offense fell victim to a handful of dropped passes in the first half, allowing Marshall to hang around.
"We had a few drives we could have kept alive," Hopson said. "That's why we always talk about execution, just bring that ball in on third down. In the second half and early fourth, we made some grabs on some critical, key plays."
Southern Miss will host Charlotte (3-5, 2-2) at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday in Hattiesburg.