After taking it on the chin against North Texas for three consecutive seasons, the Southern Miss football team finally broke free of the Mean Green for a 45-27 victory Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
USM improved to 4-2 overall and 2-0 in Conference USA, becoming arguably the favorite to win the Conference USA West division. Louisiana Tech, which is 5-1 and 2-0, is the only other undefeated team in the West and the Bulldogs are next up when they play host to the Golden Eagles at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.
Saturday’s contest also provided the biggest home victory of USM head coach Jay Hopson’s four-year run and it came before a boisterous homecoming crowd of 25,225.
Hopson, who turns 52 on Sunday, received a Gatorade shower from his players as time ran off the clock.
“It was kind of tough because it’s the first time it’s been below 95 (degrees) in six months,” he said with a broad grin. “I’ll probably have pneumonia in the morning.”
Hopson and his players had good reason to celebrate after breaking the North Texas curse behind a 563-yard performance on offense.
“It was a huge statement for sure,” USM redshirt junior quarterback Jack Abraham said. “We haven’t beaten North Texas in three years. (Last year’s loss) left a sour taste.”
USM defensive coordinator Tim Billings described UNT quarterback Mason Fine as his Achilles’ heel entering the game, and the senior did plenty of damage early with 200 yards passing and three touchdowns in the first half. But Fine struggled to consistently connect with his receivers as the game wore on, finishing 11-of-25 passing for 217 yards, three touchdowns and one interception before being helped off the field following an injury late in the third quarter.
Fine took a blindside hit and laid on the ground for while, appearing to favor his left shoulder as he walked off late in the third quarter.
UNT head coach Seth Littrell said after the game that Fine’s status was to be determined headed into the Mean Green’s next home game against Middle Tennessee.
“We hope he’s fine,” Hopson said. “He might have landed wrong. I don’t know what happened. He’s a young man that has all my admiration. He is a football player. He’s a competitor. When you watch Mason Fine at 9 a.m. on Sunday, you’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, look what’s coming to town.’ He’s an outstanding football player.”
Redshirt freshman Jason Bean replaced Fine and his first pass was intercepted by safety Ky’el Hemby, who also tipped an interception to Rachuan Mitchell in the first half. USM led 38-20 with 1:28 left in the third quarter at the time of Hemby’s interception.
The USM defense finished the night with only one sack, but they were able to harass Fine enough to make him uneasy in the pocket.
“This year, we got the pressure on him,” USM redshirt junior linebacker Racheem Boothe said. “He could never sit back and be stable and throw a perfect throw. I think that was a big difference for us.”
‘It’s fun right now’
While Fine’s day had a disappointing end, Abraham looked like an all-conference quarterback as he used nearly every one of his skill players on the way to a 45-point outburst. Abraham, who had a 1-yard touchdown run, completed 29 of 36 passes for 421 yards, three touchdowns.
Redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins was Abraham’s top target, hauling in eight catches for 198 yards and a touchdown. Four other players had three catches or more – Tim Jones, De’Michael Harris, Jaylond Adams and Trevor Terry.
“It’s hard to guard (Watkins) for sure,” Abraham said. “He gets open for me and so do all the other guys. It’s really pick your poison at this point. Whoever they’re guarding, I’m just going to throw it to the guy they’re not.”
With the offensive line holding the Mean Green defense to no sacks, Abraham seemed at ease all night as he picked apart the UNT secondary.
“I feel great,” the Oxford native said. “I’m confident in myself, confident in my offensive line, confident in my receivers. I’m confident in the game plan. My confidence is at a high right now for sure.”
For the second consecutive game, Harris flashed track star speed out of the backfield. After going 74 yards for a TD on a screen pass during USM’s first possession against UTEP, Harris went 59 yards to the end zone on a similar call on the first drive on Saturday.
With 33 seconds left in the first quarter, Harris had an easy rushing when ran up the gut nearly untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. He again outran the UNT secondary on the way to the end zone.
Harris became the first USM running back to hit 100 yards on the ground this season, carrying 14 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He again played a significant role in the passing game, catching five passes for 79 yards and a score.
Harris and junior Kevin Perkins have added a steady ground game to Conference USA’s best passing attack.
“It’s fun right now,” Harris said. “We’re not selfish at all so it really doesn’t matter who has the ball. We feel like whoever touches the ball can make a play and take it for six.”