HATTIESBURG – After often struggling to hang with Conference USA squads the three previous seasons, Southern Miss was the team dishing out a whipping in the conference opener Saturday night.
Quarterback Nick Mullens and receiver Mike Thomas hooked up for three touchdown passes as USM cruised to a 49-14 victory over North Texas at Roberts Stadium.
USM, which won its C-USA opener for the first time since 2010, improves to 3-2 and 1-0 in C-USA with a big road trip to Marshall (4-1, 1-0) looming on Friday.
Saturday's win was USM's first conference victory in Hattiesburg since the regular season finale of 2011, a 44-7 victory over Memphis.
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Just two years ago, North Texas beat USM 55-14 at Roberts Stadium in Nick Mullens' first career start as a freshman.
“I did go back and watch that game,” USM head coach Todd Monken said Saturday night. “Any time you want to feel sorry for yourself just go back and watch a little bit of 2013. That will make you feel good about where we're at now. We've got balls bouncing of our facemasks and turning it over. It's embarrassing. It's so much more fun now.”
Monken challenged USM fans to show up for Saturday's contest after a poor showing for the last home contest against Austin Peay on Sept. 12.
USM announced a crowd of 26,430 on Saturday, but the actual number appeared to be a little smaller.
“I was pleased with the crowd,” Monken said. “We had a great crowd there tonight. The student section came out in full force. I asked for three years to get the first conference game at home. We took advantage of it tonight.”
Mullens entered Saturday's game fifth in the nation in passing yardage and he didn't let up against the winless Mean Green (0-4, 0-2). He completed 27-of-36 passes for 325 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions before being replaced by backup Tyler Matthews with 8:37 remaining.
Mullens has now completed 124-of-188 for 1,691 yards and 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions – none over the last three games.
“Going in, I thought we had a great week of preparation,” Mullens said. “You saw the product out on the field. It showed how much work we put in.
“We have a great group of receivers and we have an awesome bond. I look forward to making more plays with those guys.”
Thomas was Mullens' top target Saturday, setting a career high with seven catches for 155 yards and three scores.
Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the season opener against Mississippi State, missed the Austin Peay game and wasn't 100 percent when he played at Texas State and Nebraska.
“He's healthy,” Monken said. “He was still hobbled before the Nebraska game. This was really the first week he's been back to practice. He's not perfect. There are still certain things he can do better.”
After giving up an average of 600 yards of offense in the previous two games, USM allowed 386 yards on Saturday and only two fourth quarter touchdowns. USM also registered five sacks.
Junior defensive end Ja'Boree Poole led the way with two sacks as a defense dealing with injuries made significant progress Saturday.
“It feels like we're finally where we want to be as a team and we're looking good,” Poole said.
Senior Justice Hayes led USM in rushing with 16 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown with most of his yardage coming with the game well in hand.
Sophomore running back Ito Smith had another nice game, catching seven passes for 85 yards and running nine times for 84 yards and a touchdown.
“Every time I got the ball I had a hole,” Smith said. “The offensive line did a great job.”
Mullens found Thomas for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:58 left in the second quarter, giving USM the 7-0 advantage.
In the second quarter, Mullens hit Casey Martin for a 3-yard touchdown and later ran 4 yards for a touchdown to give the Golden Eagles a 21-0 lead at the half.
Mullens and Thomas connected twice on touchdowns in the third quarter to put the game out of reach, starting with another 5-yard toss at the 8:55 mark.
On the first play of the next USM possession, Mullens found Thomas streaking wide open down the middle of the field on a flea-ficker for a 62-yard touchdown.
“I knew it was going to be a touchdown and (the cornerback) was going to bite hard on it,” Thomas said. “All I saw was just light. I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”
North Texas broke up the shutout with 14:45 remaining on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Andrew McNulty to Carlos Harris.
McNulty completed 11-of-21 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown with Harris catching nine passes for 136 yards and a score.
North Texas was led on the ground by Jeffrey Wilson, who had 22 carries for 137 yards.