The Southern Miss football team is back to winning games with defense, and that’s likely a good sign for the Golden Eagles headed into the final three games of the season.
USM trounced UAB 37-2 on Saturday at Roberts Stadium, clinching bowl eligibility and ending a three-game losing streak to the Blazers.
USM improved to 6-3 overall and 4-1 in Conference USA play, keeping their faint hopes alive in the West Division. Louisiana Tech, which already has a win over USM, beat North Texas 52-17 on Saturday to improve to 5-0 in league play.
The Blazers traveled to USM with plenty of confidence, and the Southern Miss players took note when the UAB football program’s Twitter account posted on Friday that, “The Blazers are taking over Hattiesburg for the next 14 hours.”
“As a defense, we saw that (tweet) last night,” USM senior defensive back D.Q. Thomas said. “We made sure that we would be the one to have the last laugh.”
USM redshirt junior defensive end Jacques Turner said he knew “after the first play” that the Blazers would have a hard time moving the ball.
Two weeks after holding Rice to 139 yards in a 20-6 victory, the Golden Eagles limited the Blazers to 170.
With sophomore starter Tyler Johnston out with an injury, UAB (6-3, 3-2) turned to freshman Dylan Hopkins at quarterback.
Hopkins looked like a first-time starter on his first interception of the day, a pass that he sent directly to USM safety Shannon Showers, who was well down field on the play. Showers returned the ball 35 yards to the UAB 21. Three plays later, Steven Anderson punched it in the end zone from 6 yards out for the 7-0 lead at the 9:09 mark of the first quarter.
Thomas pushed the lead to 17-0 with 11:01 left in the first half when he stepped up front of a Hopkins pass and sprinted untouched for 55 yards to the end zone.
Aside from a safety on a sack of Jack Abraham in the end zone late in the second quarter, it was smooth sailing for the Golden Eagles the rest of the way.
Hopkins completed 15 of 25 passes for 103 yards and two interceptions.
Abraham, who survived frequent pressure from the UAB front seven, completed 17 of 22 passes for 164 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Junior receiver Tim Jones, a Biloxi native, had six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt junior Quez Watkins pulled in five passes for 87 yards and a TD.
USM next travels to Texas-San Antonio for a 5 p.m. kickoff on Nov. 16.
The announced crowd for Saturday’s game was 23,819.
Hitting the freshman
For the second consecutive contest, the Southern Miss defense repeatedly put pressure on the quarterback.
After tallying a career-high 3 ½ sacks in a 20-6 win at Rice, Turner again caused havoc. He seemed to spend the majority of the first half in the UAB backfield and finished with four tackles, a sack and two tackles for negative yardage.
It wasn’t long ago that was Turner was lamenting his own inability to get to the quarterback, but he’s managed to turn things around the last two weeks.
“I made a statement a couple of weeks ago that I’ve got to dominate,” he said. “I’m just getting the job done.”
Southern Miss had four sacks as a team with Racheem Boothe and Terry Whittington also getting to the quarterback. Darius Kennedy and Demarrio Smith shared one sack.
Running game rebounds
Southern Miss had a rough first half running the ball with 17 carries for 23 yards, but the final two quarters proved to be much more productive.
Junior Kevin Perkins led the Golden Eagles in rushing for the second second consecutive game, carrying six times for 94 yards. Most of his yardage came on a career-long carry of 79 on the first play of the fourth quarter, setting up a 9-yard touchdown toss from Abraham to Jones.
Southern Miss is as healthy as it’s been all season at the running back position with no running back currently sidelined with an injury. Anderson appeared to be at full health, running 13 times for 41 yards and a TD.
UAB entered the game giving up an average of 92.8 yards a game on the ground. USM managed 161 yards on 34 carries.
Bowl rep on hand
USM was left out of the postseason last season despite being bowl-eligible at 6-5, meaning the Golden Eagles will likely need to hit the seven-win mark to assure themselves of a bid.
A representative for the Independence Bowl was on hand for Saturday’s game. That game will be played on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, Louisiana and features tie-ins with the ACC and SEC. It seems likely that at least the SEC won’t fulfill its tie-in with the bowl.
USM lost 42-13 to Florida State in the 2018 Independence Bowl.
Conference USA’s primary bowl tie-ins are the Gasparilla (Tampa), Bahamas, New Mexico, New Orleans, First Responder (Dallas) and either the Frisco (Texas) Bowl or Hawaii Bowl.