With starting quarterback Jack Abraham standing on the sideline in a hoodie, it was up to the defense to carry the day for Southern Miss Saturday against Marshall.
Defensive coordinator Tim Billings’ group responded with all the support that freshman QB Tate Whatley would need.
The Golden Eagles’ D forced four turnovers, each at crucial points in the game, and held the Herd to 249 yards of total offense to earn a 26-24 victory at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Whatley overcame a few youthful errors to turn in a competent performance, but it was the defense that deserved a large share of credit.
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“It was good to get a break or two,” said USM head coach Jay Hopson, who is now 3-0 against Marshall. “We’re a team that’s just had bad breaks. Sooner or later, the bad breaks quit. It’s funny how it all balances out.”
USM improved to 4-4 overall and 3-2 in Conference USA, keeping bowl hopes alive. Marshall dropped to 5-3 and 3-2.
The first turnover of the game for the USM defense also proved to be the most consequential with USM trailing 10-3 at the 2:58 mark of the second quarter. The game appeared to getting out of hand for USM after a bad snap on a punt led to a Marshall TD 2 minutes earlier and Whatley fumbled the ball away to give the Herd the ball at the USM 36.
Two plays later, USM junior cornerback Ty Williams stepped in the way of an Alex Thomson pass and returned the ball 49 yards to the Marshall 46.
“I felt like it gave us momentum,” Williams said. “We jumped from zero to 100 real quick. That was a big boost and I knew our offense would click as soon as it happened. I knew it was going to be a good game changer.”
Five plays later, Whatley threw a 4-yard touchdown to Quez Watkins on a fade route to the right corner of the end zone to tie the game at 10-10 with 48 seconds left in the first half.
On the first play of the next Marshall possession, D’Iberville product Jacques Turner came up with a strip sack of Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green, who replaced Thomson, and Darian Yancey returned the ball 17 yards for a touchdown to hand the Golden Eagles a 17-10 lead at the half.
“I had a one-on-one opportunity and I just took advantage of it,” said Turner, a redshirt sophomore defensive end “I don’t get those too often.”
Turner has five sacks this season and three forced fumbles.
Two other USM turnovers proved crucial in the second half:
▪ Ky’el Hemby picked off a pass in the third quarter to set up a 23-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield, regaining the lead at 20-17 at the 2:58 mark.
▪ Resurrection product Darius Kennedy stripped Marshall receiver Tyre Brady near the USM 10 and redshirt sophomore linebacker Racheem Boothe recovered the fumble with 4:19 left in the game.
Marshall tacked on a touchdown toss from Green to Artie Henry with 1:11 remaining, but USM recovered the ensuing onside kick to finish off the win.
Marshall managed just 31 yards rushing before an announced crowd of 20,375.
Whatley steps in
Abraham went through warm-ups prior to the contest, but he was standing on the sideline in a hoodie by the time the game kicked off.
Hopson said that the staff realized on Monday that Whatley would likely have to make the start due to a bone bruise suffered by Abraham in the 20-17 loss to Charlotte last week.
“Jack’s OK. He’s just got a bone bruise, but he’ll be fine,” Hopson said. “I’m hoping he’ll be back Monday and ready to roll. That’s just one of those deals where as the days go it gets better.”
Whatley did lose a fumble, but he has yet to throw an interception this season. On Saturday, he 16 of 25 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
He also ran 25 times for 40 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown that capped a 94-yard drive to push the USM lead to 26-17 with 7:13 remaining.
Of USM’s 222 yards of total offense, Whatley accounted for 174.
“What a competitor,” Hopson said. “He’s a young man who fought, scratched, clawed. He’s a true Southern Miss guy. You saw him get hit a few times, dig and fight and claw for a yard, do whatever he could to keep the play going. For a freshman in his first start to come out and beat Marshall in the first game, I thought that spoke volumes. I thought he did a tremendous job and you’ll only see young guys like that get better.”
USM will next travel to UAB at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 10.