The Southern Miss football team managed to survive its trip to Rice Saturday, picking up a 43-34 victory to clinch bowl eligibility for a third consecutive season.
With redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs back behind center, USM (6-4, 4-2 in C-USA) piled up 517 yards of offense.
“It’s great to be bowl eligible,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said in his post-game interview. “I’m so proud of our offense. Our offense played tremendously.
“Defensively, we played one of our worst games of the season. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board there.”
Griggs made his first start at quarterback since Sept. 30 and had his best passing performance of the season. The Greenwood native set a new single-game career high in passing yardage, completing 22 of 31 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions
Griggs’ favorite target again was his former high school teammate, Korey Robertson. The two connected eight times for 159 yards and two touchdowns, allowing Robertson to set a new career high mark for receiving yardage in a game
Senior running back Ito Smith broke out of his recent slump, hitting the 100-yard mark for the first time since Oct. 14 against UTEP. He ran 24 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a back-and-forth contest in the second half and the game wasn’t put to rest until Smith scored from 18 yards out with 2:55 remaining.
USM redshirt junior kicker Parker Shaunfield made three field goals in the first half to push his current run of successful attempts to 11. He started off the USM scoring with a 42-yarder at the 10:53 mark of the first quarter, hit one from 29 yards out early in the second quarter and nailed a career-long 51-yarder as time expired in the first half to give USM a 22-14 lead at the break.
While the points came with ease for USM, the defense put in arguably its worst performance of the season against a struggling Rice squad. The Owls had 381 yards of offense – 254 on the ground. Nahshon Ellerbe led Rice with 22 carries for 153 yards and four touchdowns.
Penalties continued to be an issue for USM (6-4, 4-2) after committing 14 for 120 yards last week against Tennessee. On Saturday, USM had 10 penalties called for 86 yards. Many of those penalties came on the defensive side of the ball.
Biloxi native Tim Jones, a freshman receiver, got into the end zone for the first time in his USM career, outrunning the Rice secondary for a 51-yard touchdown at the 7:34 mark of the first quarter to give the Golden Eagles a 10-0 advantage.
Jones had two catches for 56 yards and a touchdown to finish second on the team in receiving yardage.
USM will play its final home game of the season next week with Charlotte coming to Hattiesburg for a 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
Rice dropped to 1-9 and 1-5.