Southern Miss played like a top 25 team for the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s Conference USA opener against North Texas.
The Golden Eagle offense was on fire.
There was a 45-yard pass from Kwadra Griggs to Ito Smith, a 7-yard shovel pass to Allenzae Staggers for a touchdown, three passes to Korey Robertson and a 4-yard touchdown run by Griggs, all in the first quarter.
Then early in the second quarter, Smith reeled off a 65-yard touchdown run to put Southern Miss ahead 21-7.
And that’s when the fun ended.
There were three and outs. There were a few big plays, and then punts. There were 10 possessions without scoring. Two drives ended on fourth-down, non-punt plays. Ironically, there were no turnovers, but Golden Eagle punter Zac Everett went onto the field eight times to do his thing.
While the USM defense was torched by North Texas quarterback Mason Fine for 366 yards through the air, the Southern Miss offense fizzled.
Final score: Mean Green 43, Golden Eagles 28.
“We started off kind of good,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “But at the end of the second and in the third quarter, they dominated.
“Give their defensive backs credit. We moved the ball at times in the second half but weren’t able to stick it in the end zone.”
Southern Miss (2-2, 0-1 Conference USA) finished Saturday night’s game at M.M. Roberts Stadium with 18 first downs, 145 yards rushing and 270 passing for a total of 415 offensive yards.
Quarterback Griggs said to chalk up the slow going in the second half to lack of execution.
“They kept playing man (to man),” he said. “We just decreased as an offense. I missed a few throws, we dropped a few balls. We watched a lot of film, they did exactly as we thought they were going to do. They came out with execution to win the game.”
North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya agreed.
“We just started making plays,” he said. “We just started coming out and executing the calls instead of waltzing around, not knowing what we’re doing. We executed. We went back to our coaching and training. I believe that helped us overcome and get this win.”
Smith, the senior running back for Southern Miss, had another outstanding game, rushing 13 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns and catching two passes for 47 yards.
Tez Parks, who has missed time because of an injury, got in the game, too, running five times for 17 yards.
Smith said that was OK with him.
“It’s better to have fresh legs, so I won’t be dead tired by the end of the game,” he said.
Smith said he wanted the Eagles the run the ball more, but said that Griggs did a good job keeping focus in the huddle.
“He stayed positive,” Smith said. “He kept us cool.”
Griggs knows that is part of his job.
“They look up to me, so I’ve got to keep everybody going,” Grigg said. “I tried to tell the offense it was not over, it’s just two touchdowns, we’ve still got a chance of winning the ballgame. I try to keep positive because if I be positive, they be positive.”
Still, it was not enough for Southern Miss. Five of 15 third-down conversions and several three-and-outs will put a team in a hole.
One it can’t get out of.