USM fails to end the streak

Junior place kicker Corey Acosta takes a knee after his game-winning field goal was blocked Saturday. Susan Broadbridge/Printz
Junior place kicker Corey Acosta takes a knee after his game-winning field goal was blocked Saturday.
Susan Broadbridge/Printz

With a minute left on the clock in the fourth quarter, Allan Bridgford and the Golden Eagles took over at the USM 28-yard-line. The Golden Panthers led the Eagles 24-23. Southern Miss had a one-minute chance to snap the longest active losing streak in the FBS after Florida International missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.

After three incompletions USM converted on fourth down with a 13-yard pass to Markese Triplett. Bridgford completed another pass to Triplett again for 12 yards. After an FIU offsides penalty and an incomplete pass, Bridgford threw the ball deep in hopes that wide receiver James Cox would score the winning touchdown. Instead, FIU’s Sam Miller was penalized for pass interference, setting up a Southern Miss 44-yard field goal attempt by kicker Corey Acosta. A Golden Panther timeout left six seconds on the clock.

“I honestly thought this was it,” defensive lineman Khyri Thornton said of that moment. “This was going to be the win to put ourselves over the top. We put in the work and practice all the time. We put in the effort and really work hard.”

Southern Miss fans were filled with hope. Some were tempted to storm the field in celebration of USM’s first victory since Christmas Eve of 2011.

But another Southern Miss weakness was manipulated in those final seconds of the game. FIU defensive lineman Isame Faciane blocked the potential game-winning field goal, handing Southern Miss its 17th consecutive loss. It was USM’s third blocked field goal in two games.

“Obviously, someone got their hand up,” first-year head coach Todd Monken said. “Was it frustrating to go all the way down there? Sure it is. Of course it is.”

Southern Miss entered the game a 17-point favorite over the previously winless Golden Panthers. Statistically, FIU was supposed to be worse than USM. Even ESPN analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit expected Southern Miss to win.

The Golden Eagles’ loss defied expectation as they allowed an offense that averaged 150 yards per game to rack up 341 yards of total offense. In addition, the Panthers scored three touchdowns and a field goal, which was enough to outscore the Eagles in a game that yielded the most points for USM all season.

USM’s too familiar problems continue to plague them. Southern Miss turned the ball over four times – two interceptions and two fumbles. They had another field goal blocked. The offense failed to convert on nine of 15 third-down situations. The defense struggled to stop an offense that played over ten minutes longer than the Southern Miss offense.

The Eagles’ first drive of the game resulted in a touchdown. It not only gave fans hope, but it gave FIU fans and players a familiar feeling.

“The thing I was most proud of was we fell behind, started out the same old way,” first-year FIU head coach Ron Turner said. “Get the ball, go three and out, crappy punt, they get decent field position. They go down and score. Our guys could have said oh s–t here we go again. But they didn’t.”

The Golden Panthers responded with a scoring drive of their own, tying the game at 7-7. Before the first half ended, FIU led 21-16, and would eventually earn their first win of the season. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles are 0-5 and lost their first conference game of the season.

“It is kind of sad in the locker room right now,” USM linebacker C.J. Perry said. “Players are taking (the loss) pretty hard, but it is only one loss and that is how we go about it. We have to come back to work next week and come back ready.”

USM is still looking to end a 17-game losing streak, made worse by a total of 19 turnovers in five games. Southern Miss is the only team in Conference-USA without a win. And though Southern Miss will have its second bye week of the season, the next game is at East Carolina (4-1, 2-0).

After the loss to FIU, Coach Monken accepted much of the blame for USM’s shortcomings in 2013.

“There are obviously times where we don’t do enough things to beat good football teams,” Monken said. “But ultimately, it falls on me. I’m the head coach… We’re going to look at what we can do better as a staff. It starts with us. We have to coach better and we have to play better. That’s the only way I know.”

Southern Miss plays ECU on Oct. 19 in their fourth game on the road.