Southern Miss

Southern Miss defense throttles UTEP for 1st shutout of FBS team in 16 years

Southern Miss linebacker Jeremy Sangster (26) sacks UTEP quarterback Zack Greenlee (8) during the game Saturday in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss linebacker Jeremy Sangster (26) sacks UTEP quarterback Zack Greenlee (8) during the game Saturday in Hattiesburg. Special to the Sun Herald

It doesn’t matter the opponent. It doesn’t matter the stadium. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning or night, sunny or rainy.

When a defense comes up with a great big zero on the scoreboard, it’s a monumental accomplishment.

And that’s what Southern Miss did Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium in a 24-0 Conference USA victory over the UTEP Miners.

“That’s always a good thing,” said Southern Miss had coach Jay Hopson, who spent most of his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball. “You’re always excited about it.

“After watching (UTEP) against Western Kentucky, we knew it would be a fight. We tackled well, played well up front, covered well.”

The Golden Eagles held the Miners to only six first downs, 130 yards passing and 17 yards rushing. UTEP’s average gain per play was only 2.9 yards (compared to 5.9 for Southern Miss).

UTEP converted 6 of 15 third downs and 0 of 2 fourth downs.

UTEP reached the Southern Miss 41-yard line and the Southern Miss 37 in the second quarter, but walked away with no points on both occasions. The Miners were forced to punt on its first foray into Golden Eagle territory and they failed to convert on fourth down the other time.

They did not cross midfield again until late in the game, eight possessions later, when Terry Juniel returned a USM kickoff 59 yards to the USM 41-yard line and got to the 36 before Derrick Dixon sacked UTEP’s Mark Torrez for a 6-yard loss on fourth down.

“I’m proud of the guys,” Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “They battled. We told them at the half that we had ‘em 14-0 and if they don’t score, they don’t win. So they came out and responded in the second half.

“They prepared hard and they played hard.”

It was the second shutout of the season for Southern Miss, the other coming in the second game of the season in a 45-0 win over Southern (La.). The last time USM had two shutouts in a season came in 1999, when it blanked Army and Louisiana.

USM had one shutout in 2016, 56-0 over Savannah State; one in 2009, 52-0 over Alcorn State; and one in 2006, 45-0 over Southeastern Louisiana.

But the last time Southern Miss posted a shutout over an FBS or a Conference USA team before Saturday night was in 2001, when the Eagles trimmed UAB 3-0 at Roberts Stadium during the Jeff Bower coaching era.

Against UTEP, boundary cornerback Curtis Mikell was the leading tackler for the Golden Eagles with six solo tackles. He also broke up two passes. Rover Jomez Applewhite had five solo tackles, one assist and one tackle for loss. Defensive tackle Draper Riley made two solo tackles and four assists, with one tackle for loss.

“That’s the kind of game I love,” said Riley, a 6-foot-4, 304-pound redshirt senior from Harvey, La., who noted that the Golden Eagles used a “big” defensive lineup to stop the run.

“(The shutout) means a lot,” he said. “We executed at practice and did everything we were told. We were in the gaps we were supposed to be in. We had a great game plan and executed off of that. Everything we saw on film, we saw it on the field. It was great play-calling upstairs and great execution up front.”