With three interceptions and a crushing hit to send one of the Southern Miss football team’s star players to the sideline, Amik Robertson gave Louisiana Tech the big game game it needed to break a four-game losing streak to USM.
Louisiana Tech toppled the Golden Eagles 45-30 at Joe Aillet Stadium as the Bulldogs’ defense stymied the Golden Eagles in the second half.
The USM offense rolled into Saturday’s game as one of the nation’s most explosive units, but it hit a wall in the final two quarters with three costly turnovers — all interceptions thrown by USM redshirt junior quarterback Jack Abraham.
USM head coach Jay Hopson pointed to unspecified injuries that took place during the game to a pair of running backs, senior De’Michael Harris and redshirt junior Kevin Perkins, as playing a role in the outcome.
“We got down a few bodies, to be honest with you,” Hopson said. “Some of the things we had planned (didn’t play out on offense). I don’t think losing De’Michael was a great thing for us early and (Perkins) went down in the second half. It is what it is. I thought we played hard. We just didn’t execute well enough to win. Give Louisiana Tech all the credit. They made plays, executed.”
Harris, who returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a TD, finished with five carries for three yards before leaving early in the second quarter. Perkins ran 12 times for 56 yards before he was hobbled in third quarter.
Louisiana Tech (6-1, 3-0 in Conference USA) now controls its own destiny in the West Division while USM (4-3, 2-1) has some work to do to get back in the C-USA title game mix. The Golden Eagles next travel to take on Rice on Saturday. Louisiana Tech will go UTEP next before hosting North Texas and playing difficult back-to-back road games at Marshall and UAB. Tech will host UTSA in the regular season finale.
Abraham, who began his college career at Louisiana Tech before transferring to Northwest Mississippi Community College, completed 26 of 40 passes for 327 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions against the Bulldogs.
One of his most costly interceptions took place when Robertson, a junior defensive back, picked off Abraham in the end zone on 2nd-and-goal at the Louisiana Tech 2 with 9:23 remaining to preserve the Bulldogs’ lead at 31-27.
Abraham’s toss went into a crowded corner of the end zone.
“The one at the goal line, I forced,” Abraham said. “I should have thrown it away. That’s definitely a bad throw on my part. Amik made a few good plays at the end. It’s just one of those games.
“I’m obviously upset. That was not the performance we wanted, the performance I wanted.”
The Bulldogs took advantage of Abraham’s mistake with senior quarterback J’Mar Smith marching his offense down the field on an 80-yard drive that finished with a 1-yard dive into the end zone by Bobby Hollywith 6:28 left on the clock to make it 38-27.
Down 38-30, USM (4-3, 2-1) got the ball back at its own 20 with one time out and 1:51 remaining, but Abraham was again picked off Ezekiel Barnett, who returned the ball 30 yards for a touchdown to set the score at 45-30 with 1:27 left.
The third quarter was a rough 15 minutes of football for Southern Miss, especially on offense. La. Tech consistently got pressure on Abraham and a couple of crucial penalties hindered USM’s progress.
Also in the third quarter, a bad snap on a punt gave Louisiana Tech first down at the USM 36 with 2:03 remaining in the quarter.
USM still somehow held a 27-24 lead after three quarters, but the bad snap set up a leaping 1-yard touchdown by Smith to give the Bulldogs a 31-27 lead with 12:02 remaining in the game.
Harris gave Southern Miss a spark to begin the game, taking the opening kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. The Vicksburg native was set up by some nice blocking on the play, running nearly untouched to the end zone for the 7-0 lead.
USM’s next score proved much more deliberate as it went 95 yards on 12 plays, capping off the drive with a 15-yard toss from Abraham to a wide open Ray Ladner, who was set free after the La. Tech defender began to chase Abraham as he left the pocket.
The Golden Eagles led 14-0 at that point, but they quickly faced adversity after Smith’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Malik Stanley cut the lead to 14-7 with :04 left in the first quarter. On the first USM snap after the touchdown, Robertson picked off an Abraham pass into double coverage, setting up Justin Henderson for a 30-yard touchdown run up the middle.
The game was tied 14-14 at that point and Harris left the game after he took a hard hit to the upper body from Robertson as he tried to pull in a pass over the middle. Harris was soon sitting on the bench with his pads removed, taking away a key part of the USM rushing attack.
“That definitely didn’t help,” Abraham said. “He’s definitely one of our better play-makers. I hate to see him go down. I hope he’s back soon.”
A 37-yard touchdown run by Abraham and a pair of field goals by Andrew Stein, including a career long of 46 yards, gave the Golden Eagles the lead at 27-17 with 2:24 left in the first half, but Smith led a six-play, 90-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard run by Henderson with 56 seconds left in the half.
At halftime, Southern Miss led 27-24.
Smith completed 14 of 20 passes for 325 yards, a touchdown and an interception, on his way to his first career win over USM.
The USM secondary’s issues against the pass again showed up again in Ruston on Saturday, especially in the first half.
The Southern Miss defensive backs have been especially vulnerable to larger receivers and the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Stanley proved to be a handful. He pulled in eight passes for 212 yards and a TD.
“They hit a few RPO’s and they made some catches and made some explosive plays on us,” Hopson said. “We played hard. It’s football, give Tech credit. J’Mar made some good throws. They made some good catches. Sometimes there was tight coverage right there and they made it. There were some things we misexecuted on. We’ve got to be better.”
USM redshirt senior receiver Jordan Mitchell missed his second consecutive game with an unspecified injury, but the Eagles did see a brief cameo from redshirt sophomore running back Steven Anderson.
Anderson made his first appearance since the Sept. 28 UTEP game with under 5 minutes remaining in the game, but likely wouldn’t have played without injuries to Harris and Perkins.
USM redshirt junior defensive end Jacques Turner, a D’Iberville native, also left the game in the second half with an injury.