The 16-year drought against SEC competition is finally over for Southern Miss.
In Jay Hopson's first game as head coach, the Golden Eagles rallied from down 35-10 late in the first half to shock Kentucky 44-35 in Lexington.
It's USM's first win over an SEC team since it won 21-0 at Alabama in 2000.
“This means so much for the players,” Hopson said. “Those guys played Southern Miss football, tough hard-nosed football.”
The Southern Miss rally began when senior quarterback Nick Mullens hit receiver Isaiah Jones for a 71-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left in the first half, starting a 34-0 run to close out the game. Mullens then sandwiched 1-yard TD runs around an 18-yard scoring pass to Julian Allen, followed by two Parker Schaunfield field goals.
It was a moment of revenge for Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who served in the same role under Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops a year ago. Dawson was fired after the Wildcats finished 5-7.
Mullens struggled badly in the first half, throwing three interceptions. He recovered in the second half to complete 18-of-28 for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
“My mindset didn’t really change,” said Mullens, who also had two short runs for touchdowns. “I just had to relax, focus and make the next play.”
The second half belonged completely to the Golden Eagles. USM had its most success on the ground with both Ito Smith and George Payne reaching the 100-yard mark. Payne had 16 carries for 100 yards.
Smith, a junior, was likely the MVP for USM, carrying the ball 36 times for 172 yards and a touchdown. He also has five catches for 40 yards.
Parker Shaunfield kicked a 21-yard field goal with 2:24 remaining in the game for the final score of the contest.
The game wasn't put to rest until Dylan Bradley sacked Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker, who fumbled with 2:07 remaining. Xavier Thigpen recovered the fumble. The turnover sparked a celebration on the USM sideline with head coach Hopson smiling and hugging his staff members.
Jones was USM's top receiver with three catches for 93 yards and a score.
Barker, who threw for 227 yards in the first quarter, finished 15-of-24 for 322 yards with four touchdowns and an interception.
Kentucky was limited to only 14 plays on offense in the second half.
“That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better,” Stoops said. “And I'll tell you this, we'll play better.”
USM hosts Savannah State at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10 in the second game of the season.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.