Southern Miss

Southern Miss offense battles to ‘ugly win’ over UTEP

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith (25) stiff arms a defender during the game Saturday in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith (25) stiff arms a defender during the game Saturday in Hattiesburg. Special to the Sun Herald

Saturday night’s Southern Miss win was far from pretty, but there’s no shame in a shutout victory against a conference opponent.

USM improved to 4-2 and 2-1 in Conference USA with a 24-0 win over UTEP before a crowd of 21,970 on homecoming.

“It was an ugly win, but we’ll take it any day,” USM senior running back Ito Smith said. “The defense played their tail off. They had our back the whole game so hats off to them.”

North Texas (4-2, 3-0) maintained its hold on first place in the C-USA West with a late drive to beat UTSA 29-26 in Denton on Saturday night.

USM, which travels to Louisiana Tech at 6 p.m. this upcoming Saturday, has to win out against the rest of the C-USA slate and have UNT lose twice to take first place in the West.

If USM is to win at La. Tech, it will have to be much better on the offensive side of the ball.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of maintaining because we’ve been starting out really fast,” Smith said. “In previous years, we’d start out slow and pick things up throughout this game. This team, we’ll start out fast and we’ll kind of lull. We’ve got to start maintaining the same energy.”

Sophomore Keon Howard received his second consecutive start at quarterback for USM with redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs still recovering from an injured left hand.

After putting together an impressive second half in a 31-29 win at UTSA last week, the results were more mixed for Howard on Saturday. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 221 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and had one lost fumble.

One of his interceptions basically amounted to a punt in a third-and-long situation, but the other one came on an underthrown pass as a receiver ran wide open into the end zone.

“To me, he was pressing a little in the first half, but I think he settled down in the second half and had some nice throws,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “The best thing about (Keon) is he’s a competitor and he keeps fighting and he keeps digging.”

Howard was not made available for comment to media after the game.

One of the bright spots on offense was the play of freshman receiver Jaylond Adams, who had the first 100-yard game of his career, catching two passes for 104 yards and his first career touchdown.

Howard found Adams streaking wide open down the sideline on both of his receptions.

The first catch gave USM a 7-0 lead at the 8:26 mark of the second quarter and the second reception set up a 38-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield with 3:08 remaining.

“It felt amazing to get my first touchdown and made some big plays for my team,” Adams said. “It felt amazing.”

Smith hit the 100-yard mark rushing for the fourth consecutive game and the 20th time in his career. He ran 28 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns on runs of 2 and 20 yards.

“I didn’t even know I had 100 tonight,” Smith said. “It’s been a long ride.”

USM appeared set to dominate the contest early on. The Eagles put up 201 yards of offense in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead, but the offense turned stagnant and the turnover issues returned for Howard.

The sophomore fumbled the ball away at the UTEP 11 on the first play of the second quarter and threw an interception late in the second quarter when he underthrew a wide open receiver who was running into the end zone.

Fortunately for Howard and USM, UTEP fumbled it away on the very next snap to give the Golden Eagles the ball at the UTEP 2. USM took advantage of the mistake with a 2-yard run by Smith with 41 seconds left in the second quarter, giving the Golden Eagles a 14-0 lead at the half.

UTEP (0-7, 0-3) managed just 147 yards of offense in the game as the USM defense pitched its first shutout against a C-USA opponent since a 3-0 win over UAB in 2001.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee