The Southern Miss football team moved within one win of bowl eligibility after surviving a road trip to Rice, 20-6, in Houston on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles improved to 5-3 overall and 3-1 in Conference USA behind the team’s best defensive performance of the season.
USM redshirt junior defensive end Jacques Turner, a D’Iberville native, had a career day, piling up 3 1/2 sacks and seven tackles. Turner came up half a sack of tying the USM single-game record for sacks.
“Today was a defensive day for sure,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “The offense didn’t have their best game at all. Defensively, we played well.
“That’s football. One day, one side is going to be up. The next day, another will be up. It was a team win.”
He and the rest of the USM defense repeatedly put pressure on the Rice quarterback. Southern Miss finished the game with seven sacks, including two by Terry Whittington, and several other quarterback hurries.
USM held Rice (0-8) to a total of 139 yards, eight on the ground.
The Owls finally began to show some life in the second half when Rice freshman QB Wiley Green connected with Austin Trammell on a 15-yard touchdown toss with 5:59 left in the third quarter to cut the USM lead to 13-6.
A Naeem Smith interception of Southern Miss QB Jack Abraham at the USM 29 with 1:09 left in the third quarter put Rice in position to close the gap further. Not long after the pick, a pass interference call in the end zone on USM cornerback Ty Williams gave the Owls first and goal at the USM 2.
On the next play, Green had a pass tipped into the hands of USM safety Ky’el Hemby in the end zone to keep the Owls off the scoreboard with 14:49 remaining.
“That was a huge momentum swing. That was the play of the game,” Hopson said.
After throwing four interceptions against Louisiana Tech, Abraham had an underwhelming day throwing the ball. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 207 yards and one interception.
The Oxford native entered the game averaging 14.6 yards per completion, but that number dropped to 9 yards on Saturday as he struggled to hit receivers well downfield.
A year ago against Rice, Abraham completed 25 of 34 passes for 428 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. In the four previous games against the Owls, USM averaged 463 yards passing.
Abraham’s biggest play of the day might have been a 17-yard run for a first down on a 3rd-and-10 play at the USM 12 with about 4 minutes left.
Six plays later, USM redshirt junior running back Kevin Perkins ran 38 yards up the middle for his second touchdown of the day to finish off the Owls with 32 seconds remaining.
Biloxi native Tim Jones, a junior receiver, had his best game of the season, leading team in catches (10) and receiving yardage (96)
Running backs return
The Southern Miss offense worked with its full complement of running backs for the first time this season.
Sophomore Trivenskey Mosley, who went down early in the season opener, saw action for the first time since Aug. 31. He received a single carry for 1 yard.
Harris got the start Saturday after being removed in the second quarter of last week’s 45-30 loss at Louisiana Tech. After taking a hard hit to the ribs from a La. Tech defensive back, Harris appeared to be fine on Saturday against the Owls with 12 carries for 41 yards.
Perkins also looked to be in good health after missing significant time in the second half against Tech with an unspecified injury. He ended up with his biggest game as a Golden Eagle, running 13 times for 86 yards and his first two touchdowns as a USM player.
Redshirt sophomore Steven Anderson received his first carry since Sept. 28 — a 2-yard rush in the first half.