Southern Miss uses strong first half to beat Louisiana 39-24

(Photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)

HATTIESBURG, MS – Southern Miss played what head Coach Will Hall said was a “complete” first half, which lifted them to a 39-24 victory over defending Sun Belt champions, Louisiana. This marked Southern Miss’s tenth straight victory over the Ragin Cajuns and the first in the Sun Belt era.

“Phenomenal win for our program. I got an unbelievable amount of respect for the team we just beat. They have won over 40 games in four years. Just a tremendous program with great coaches in it…so proud of those kids, they have won a lot of games. But what a night for our program, to beat them is a big deal. Because they are a great football program not just a great team.” Hall said.

Southern Miss used a dominant first half, one that has not come so easy for Southern Miss to jump out in front fast early. On Louisiana’s second possession, starting quarterback Ben Wooldridge’s pass was intercepted by Malik Shorts. Shorts took the interception into the red zone, and five plays later, Janari Dean took it in for six. Southern Miss led 6-2 after an extra blocked point and returned for a score.

After Louisiana went three and out, Southern Miss scored on a big chunk play. Started running back Frank Gore Jr found Ty Mims on a perfectly placed deep ball for a 52-yard touchdown. It was the first passing touchdown Gore Jr had thrown all season that pushed the lead to 13-2.

“I knew it was money.” Gore Jr said when asked about his ball to Mims.

After another Louisiana three and out, the Golden Eagles connected on another big play. Wilcke found Jason Brownlee over the middle of the field, and Brownlee outran the defenders for a 76-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 20-2. He said he “looked up and the jumbotron” to see if they would catch him.

“We wanted to try and create some explosive plays offensively that’s something we have not been doing. We were able to do that. We were able to hit Ty on a big one, we hit Brownlee on a big one. We were good on third downs. We were able to keep the defense off the field. We were able to get it in the endzone early, which allowed us to play with the lead for the second week in a row. When you have a defense and a kicking game like we do, that’s a huge advantage.” Hall said.

Southern Miss did not let up. After holding Louisiana to a field goal, the nasty bunch defense forced an intentional grounding call on Wooldridge, which led to a safety since it was in the endzone. Cameron Harrell got credited with the sack, pushing the lead to 22-5.

“There is no secret. It’s just the nasty bunch… That’s who we are. That’s our DNA.” Shorts said when asked if there was a ‘secret’ to being good in the secondary.

Wilcke then led the Golden Eagles right back down the field after the safety on an 11-play, 69-yard drive. This drive was capped off with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Wilcke to Brownlee to score 29-5. Louisiana, to their credit, came right back and got a desperately needed score on a Wooldridge pass to Michael Jefferson for a 61-yard touchdown, the PAT was no good, and that made the score 29-11 at halftime.

“All of our wins have been big. All our wins have been hard. When we came here, we said our vision for this place was two things, and we preach it every day. We want to be the best group of five program in America again because Southern Miss has been that before. We think we can do that again, we’re not there yet. Another thing is that we want to develop real men. Real men handle their responsibilities and obligations even when it’s hard. It’s hard for us right now, and our kids do it every day. I’m just so proud of how good they do.” Hall said.

It got harder in the second half, as Southern Miss struggled to move the ball on offense, only netting 55 yards in the second half. Louisiana started to be able to move the ball against Southern Miss by almost doubling the yardage they had on Southern Miss. Even though Louisiana was moving the ball, the Golden Eagle’s defense was not breaking. They forced three turnovers in the second half and three turnovers on downs, which in Hall’s mind is six turnovers.

“A lot of times we are smothering you down, so we create tackles for loss and loss yardage plays. A lot of times we don’t get hands on balls because we are tackling people. But tonight, we were able to do that, we did create some turnovers that were big. But now a fourth down stop is really a turnover, and we have done that a lot this year.” Hall said.

Southern Miss was +2 in the turnover battle and gained 17 points off Louisiana turnovers (four). Louisiana did what it could to get back into the game, going on a 19-3 run in the second half to bring the score to 32-24. Louisiana was driving the ball to try and tie the game, but Natrone Brooks intercepted Wooldridge and returned it 52-yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

Southern Miss, in year two of the Hall era, is now one win away from bowl eligibly sitting at 5-3, 3-1.

“It’s very exciting. We haven’t seen the grass being green in a long time. I feel like it’s our time and we are ready for it.” Gore Jr said.

Southern Miss looks to reach that bowl eligibility next week against Georgia State at home.