The Southern Miss football team's 44-35 win over Kentucky was not all that surprising, but the way it went down made it a game for the program's all-time highlight reel.
The Golden Eagles rallied from down 35-10 with a 34-0 run to close out the game, completely dominating Kentucky in the second half.
The rally was the largest in USM history after trailing by 25 points with 56 seconds left in the first half. It topped a 21-point comeback against Louisville in 1950 when USM trailed 21-0 with 14:50 left in the second quarter.
"Before the game coach told us that nothing was going to be given to us," USM junior running back Ito Smith said. "We had to earn it. At halftime, that’s when adversity had struck. We knew that we needed to go back out and overcome it. We got the win and we did it."
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Beating the big boys
The win over an SEC team was USM's first since 2000 in a 21-0 victory over Alabama.
It was also the first season-opening victory over an SEC opponent since an 11-7 victory at Georgia in 1996 under head coach Jeff Bower. USM only has three season-opening wins over SEC teams total with the others coming over Alabama to begin the 1953 and 1954 campaigns when Thad "Pie" Vann was head coach.
If Southern Miss continues to resemble the team that took the field in the second half in Lexington, Saturday, there is the potential for a special season.
When senior quarterback Nick Mullens struggled in the first half with three interceptions, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson put the ball in the hands of his top two running backs, junior Ito Smith and redshirt junior George Payne.
While Smith worked off the edges for nice gains, Payne powered his way through a large Kentucky front seven. Both men reached the 100-yard mark.
Smith was the MVP on offense for USM with 36 carries for 173 yards and a touchdown. He also had five catches for 40 yards,s. Payne averaged 6.3 yards a carry, running 16 times for 100 yards.
"Ito and George, they played hard-nosed Southern Miss football," first-year USM head coach Jay Hopson said. "They were tough, they were physical and that’s something that I was proud of how they played. I thought the offensive line was physical. I thought our defensive line was physical. I was just proud of how the guys played."
After sitting out last year with a knee injury, Payne appears ready for a breakout season working alongside Smith.
It was an impressive debut by Dawson, who beat the head coach who fired him, Mark Stoops, after a 5-7 season at Kentucky in 2015.
Bradley stands out
USM senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley put together one of his best games as a Golden Eagle with seven tackles, two for lost yardage, a sack, a recovered fumble and a forced fumble.
"I started my senior year with a bang," Bradley said. "I helped my team win and that’s the main goal. None of those stats would be even really important if it weren’t for my teammates guiding me around. The back end did their job to holding them up, which freed me up to make plays."
The USM defense was on the ropes to end the first half, trailing 35-17 with 387 yards allowed, including 287 yards and four touchdowns by Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker on 11-of-19 passing.
USM completely flipped the script in the second half, holding the Wildcats to just 22 yards on 15 plays from scrimmage.
While the win was a nice start to the season, the game was far from perfect considering USM's struggles on the offensive line and on defense in the first half. The Golden Eagles have a chance to clean up those mistakes this week with a soft opponent on the schedule for Saturday.
USM hosts Savannah State, an FCS team that is 7-71 since the 2009 campaign. The Tigers started the season with a 54-0 loss at Georgia Southern on Saturday.