Three takeaways from Southern Miss routing Northwestern State 64-10

Photo by Charlie Luttrell, Student Printz

HATTIESBURG, MS – Southern Miss needed a game to let all the frustration out from the past two weeks, and they took advantage of that opportunity. After a week one heartbreak and a week two wipeout, the Golden Eagles returned home and earned their first win in a 64-10 rout

“It was good to get our first win of the season. I thought in all three phases, we had some really explosive plays,” Southern Miss Head Coach Will Hall said. “We didn’t turn the ball over…we had no turnovers. That’s a huge step in the right direction. With our main guys that played, I didn’t think we had any critical errors that cost us.”

Here are three takeaways from the game:

1. The offense is showing promise but still has questions.

Freshman quarterback Zach Wilcke started his second career game and led the offense straight down the field to open. However, the offense stalled in the red zone early but got its rhythm afterward.

“We prefer to have touchdowns, and we got field goals. We’ve got to [get] better right there. But the opening drive, we took it down and scored, and the next drive, we drove it down and scored. We would like to score touchdowns every time we get it. We weren’t able to [do] that, but we still had successful drives,” Hall said.

Southern Miss had it first and goal twice on their opening two possessions and had to settle for field goals twice. Southern Miss would like to be more productive than that in the endzone, especially against an FBS team.

But after those two field goals, the offense started to come alive. Hall did not reveal on Wednesday whether we would see both Wilcke and former starting quarterback Ty Keyes in the game, but that was answered quickly.

“It’s really simple. Zach is our starter, and we think that Ty deserves to play. We said before the game that Ty is going to play the third series, and situationally, there might be times we run Ty into the game based on that. So, Ty got the third series, he made a great throw to Caston, and [he] made a play and scored. We ran Ty one more time during one of Zach’s series [and] then decided to pull Zach at the end of the first half… not because he was bad. He didn’t play perfect, nor did Ty, but they both made a lot of good plays,” Hall said.

Hall also commented that he had “no idea” who would start next week versus Tulane. Keyes ran the offense on the third drive of the first quarter. Keyes led the offense down the field and connected with junior wide receiver Jakarius Caston on a 40-yard touchdown reception.

After those three scoring drives, Southern Miss seemed to have slowed down a bit offensively, punting twice afterward with two straight three-and-outs. Southern Miss scored on the next possession on a quick two-play drive. Frank Gore Jr. took the handoff straight up the middle for 28 yards, and the score and the Golden Eagles led 20-0.

“[The Run Game] executed better this week. They were really taking the run away, so we had to throw it more,” Hall said.

Wilcke found Caston for the next Southern Miss touchdown two drives later on a quick six-play drive that covered 42 yards. Caston had two touchdowns when it was all said and done.

“This is my first game scoring two touchdowns since I’ve been here. It felt different,” Caston said. “Scoring is kind of different for me because I don’t do it a lot, but it’s going to change [and] we’re going to turn it around. This game here just built our confidence.”

Most of the scoring drives tonight were on short fields because of the outstanding punt returns that Natrone Brooks had throughout the game. Brooks had 145 yards returning kicks. After some drives that ended in scores for Southern Miss, Keyes came back right before halftime and threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore Jalen May to extend the lead to 41-0.

“It built a lot [of confidence.] We executed well today, and we need to carry that over to Tulane. We got that win we needed, let’s carry on and keep on winning.” Keyes said.

Southern Miss outgained Northwestern State 251 yards to 147 yards in the second half. Southern Miss had 588 total yards in the game to the Demons’ 234. Now, Northwestern State is not a potent defense to measure how good the offense is, but Southern Miss did not replicate a similar performance against Grambling State last year. The offense is improving and has weapons, and they needed this game to gain confidence heading into Tulane next week.

But we still don’t know who will be at QB, which you could argue is a good problem to have.

2. The defense is elite.

After the defense’s performance in the past two weeks, we knew they were special. But tonight, the first team defense put on a show.

“Man, unbelievable again, right? Nasty Bunch,” Hall said.

Hall also praised defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong’s perseverance after his mother died this past week, and he still came to every practice and coached. The first ten drives for Northwestern State had six three-and-outs, two turnovers, and one turnover on downs. Northwestern State had 87 yards in the first half to Southern Miss’s 337. They also only had three first downs, all coming at the end of the second quarter.

The defense also added to the final score by adding nine points on a touchdown via a Swayze Bozeman fumble return from a strip sack by Dominic Quewon and then a safety in the third quarter.

The defense did not let Northwestern State do anything on offense until the game was already out of hand. Over the past two weeks, that has been a constant. The defense will keep Southern Miss in most of the fun going forward, which is encouraging.

“The defense goes off every game. All we got to do is get in there and score, and they take care of what they need to take care of,” Caston said.

3. This win builds confidence going into Tulane.

They have plenty to learn, but this game builds confidence in the offense. That’s important because now, with the defense playing like it is, it gives a confident offense position to win games. This game was the game the offense needed to regain its confidence, and the defense never lost theirs.

Tulane beat power-five opponent Kansas State on the road on Saturday and will be a tall task for Southern Miss. But now you can envision a way for Southern Miss to beat them next week. Will it be with a two-quarterback system? Will it be with the defense showing up? Time will tell, but Southern Miss likes where it’s at, sitting at 1-2 with everything in front of them.

“Tonight was a good step in the right direction of doing what we are supposed to do so that when we play a great opponent like next week at Tulane, we know we can do that. If it’s close at the end, we have done it before. It builds confidence there,” Hall said.

Southern Miss is back in action next week at 6 PM on ESPN+ at Tulane.