The Jack Abraham era is off to a promising start at Southern Miss.
The redshirt sophomore showed pinpoint accuracy as he teamed with his top target, Quez Watkins, in a 55-7 thumping of Jackson State Saturday night at Roberts Stadium.
Abraham completed 21 of 27 passes for 242 yards and four touchdowns — three to Watkins — in his debut as the Golden Eagle quarterback before a crowd of 29,176.
After Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard combined to complete 56 percent of their passes last year, Abraham showed signs that he can easily improve on that clip.
“I think Jack had a good game,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “He understand that he has to do that week in and week out. He’s a level headed young man who understands that it’s one game.
“I was pleased. He moved us well. He managed the game extremely well. I’m really proud of his effort.”
The Oxford product breezed through the first quarter, completing 11 of 12 passes for 116 yards and two scores. His only incompletion was a pass that probably should have been caught by the receiver.
“I felt good, felt confident in the offense and receivers,” Abraham said. “We’ve been working on routes after practice. Our timing was good tonight and our execution was good too.”
Watkins showed promise with 23 receptions for 337 yards and two scores during his redshirt freshman season, but he dropped a few passes in the process.
On Saturday, he hauled in everything that came his direction to set new personal marks.
The Athens, Ala., native caught eight passes for 137 yards and also had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown. He finished with 241 all-purpose yards.
Watkins let a punt go over his head earlier in the game, forcing the USM offense to start at its own 2.
He earned redemption on the return for a touchdown.
“I just saw everybody flowing to the left and I knew I had to cut back somewhere,” Watkins said. “It was a lane and I just hit it.”
Watkins gave fans reason to be concerned when he began to run with a limp late in the first half. He was clearly hobbled when he ran into the end zone on his final score of the night — a 24-yard toss from Abraham early in the third quarter that proved to be his last play of the night.
Hopson described the injury as a shin contusion.
“I’m a little banged up, but I’m still going to fight through it,” Watkins said.
USM athletic director Jon Gilbert made the replacement of the sound system at Roberts Stadium a major priority headed into the 2018 season.
On Saturday, Golden Eagle fans could hear the public address announcer loud and clear for the first time in a while.
Gilbert was on hand when they first put the speakers to a test.
“I was overjoyed that I could hear it,” Gilbert said. “It’s a real positive. Obviously, hearing it without a crowd will be much different than tonight where there will be a crowd and you get to hear it. Having speakers that work at full capability and a referee’s mic that will work, that’s a great improvement from last year.”
The replacement of the sound system was part of a plan to make improvements in the stadium, including the replacement of graphics banners on both sidelines and on the top deck. The bleachers also received a pressure washing to remove grime that built up over the years.
Gilbert said improvements cost approximately $400,000.
Roberts Stadium was expanded to a 33,000 capacity in 1976 with the addition of a second deck on both sides. It went up to 36,000 in 2008 when the south end zone was enclosed with suites and club seating.
While the stadium won’t be mistaken for a gleaming new structure, the improvements made an obvious difference on Saturday.
“I pride myself and I think this institution prides itself on putting our best foot forward,” Gilbert said. “Our campus looks great. I’m really pleased with the way the stadium looks. I’m not satisfied. There’s lots more I want to do, but I think with what we’ve accomplished here over the last year I think it’s pretty impressive.”
Area of concern
While the Southern Miss passing game was as good as can be expected, the Golden Eagles had a tough time getting going on the ground early.
The biggest gain of the first half was an 18-yard run by Tez Parks when he kept it up in the middle on a direct snap. On his 12 other carries, Parks had just 16 yards on 12 carries.
The Golden Eagles averaged just over 2 yards per carry in the first half, but finished with 202 yards on 45 carries.
“They had some pretty stout boxes, but we certainly pride ourselves on the running the ball,” Hopson said. “They were giving us some things (in the passing game) so we decided to go ahead and take it. That’s why I thought Jack did a good job.”
Freshman Trivenskey Mosley led USM with 12 carries for 49 yards. Freshman quarterback Tate Whatley did a good job of running the offense late, carrying four times for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez was 3-of-5 passsing for 8 yards and two interceptions. He ran two times for nine yards.
USM D stands tall
The Southern Miss defense was the much more physical group, consistently putting bone-jarring hits on JSU running backs and receivers.
USM replaced its entire starting secondary from a year ago, but there appeared to be no problems in that group on Saturday.
Junior college transfer D.Q. Thomas received the start at safety and had a team-leading five tackles - including two for negative yardage.
USM was in the right place place at the right time, forcing four Jackson State turnovers. Ky’el Hemby and Shannon Showers both came up with interceptions in the secondary and redshirt senior Xavier Marion had a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
“God definitely answered my prayers,” Marion said. “I haven’t been in the end zone in five years. That was my first time scoring at The Rock.”