USM seals first home win since 2011

Dylan Bradley, Jarell Aaron and Jacorius Cotton gather in the student section after the win againts Alcorn State Saturday night. The last time the golden eagle’s won their home game was in the 2011-2012 season with Larry Fedora. | Photo by Susan Broadbridge

The Golden Eagles snapped an 11-game home losing streak with a 26-20 victory over Alcorn State in front of 26,448 fans Saturday night. The last time the Golden Eagle fans witnessed a home victory was in 2011 when USM beat Memphis 44-7. 

Southern Miss may have surprised the Alcorn State Braves on defense as they ran a fast-pace, up-tempo offense for the first time this season. The offense was lined up and ready to run a play just seconds after the previous play ended all night.

The first score of the game came from Southern Miss on their second possession of the game, following an Alcorn State fumble. The Golden Eagles started the drive on their own eight-yard line. True freshman running back Ito Smith started the drive by taking the handoff and bouncing it to the right side and delivering a nasty stiff-arm on a ten-yard carry.

Two Alcorn State penalties helped keep the drive alive for the Golden Eagles, but Nick Mullens threw three straight incompletions to halt the drive, setting up Corey Acosta for a 50-yard field goal. He connected right down the middle to give USM a 3-0 lead with 4:24 left to play in the first quarter.  The defense, which played well all night, forced a Braves’ three-and-out.

The next USM drive was aided by the second longest pass play of the night for the Golden Eagles when Nick Mullens found slot receiver Casey Martin, who started for the first time in his career, streaking up the right sideline for a 32-yard gain to end the first quarter. The drive would carry over into the second quarter, but USM would fail to convert a fourth-and-one.

After USM forced Alcorn to punt, Mullens hit his receiver, Kyle Foster, out of his break on a crossing route up the middle for 27 yards. The Braves’ defense seemed tired and wore out at this point in the game as they committed three costly penalties, two coming on third down and one coming on a fourth down attempt. Mullens was able to cap off the drive, finding James Cox in the corner of the end zone on a fade route for a seven-yard touchdown to push USM’s lead to 10-0.

The defense would step up once again on Alcorn State’s next offensive possession. With Alcorn State facing a third and six, John Gibbs Jr. dropped back looking for a receiver, but Kalan Reed stepped in front of the pass for an interception. It was Reed’s second consecutive game with an interception. Nine seconds later, Mullens hit Marquise Ricard on another beautiful fade route in the corner of the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown pushing USM’s lead to 17-0.

The Braves’ offense marched onto the field following the touchdown drive feeling some pressure to put some points on the board. The drive was four plays long and saw zero pass plays. Gibbs Jr. had the two biggest plays with both times keeping the ball on read options. The first went for 32 yards and the second went for 33 yards and a touchdown after making a few Golden Eagles miss on his way to the end zone. The score made it 17-7 with 4:17 left in the first half.

USM’s next drive was capped off by another Acosta field goal, connecting from 39 yards out and giving USM a 20-7 lead entering half time. The only score of the third quarter came off of another Acosta field goal from 23 yards out pushing the score to 23-7.

The fourth quarter brought plenty of excitement. Alcorn State started the quarter and drove 74 yards in 12 plays. The drive was capped off when Zerick Rollins Jr. found Casey Freeman open in the back of the end zone for a four-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 23-13 after Alcorn State failed to convert a two-point attempt.

Ten plays later, USM would again call on the foot of Acosta to push the lead. Acosta again put the ball through the uprights to give USM a 26-13 lead. Acosta’s four made field goals set a new career-high for him. His previous high was only two.

Alcorn got the ball back with 9:10 on the clock. On fourth and two, the Golden Eagles had Gibbs Jr. stuffed in the back field but he broke the tackle and ran for a 64-yard gain. Alcorn ran the read option almost exclusively throughout the game and whenever Gibbs Jr. did decide to keep the ball, it seemed like there was always a huge hole for him to run through. On the next play, Anthony Williams III scored from five yards out to bring the Braves within six points of the Golden Eagles.

Southern Miss struggled to get first downs and run out the clock. Alcorn State was able to get one last chance to tie or win the game with 1:02 left in the fourth quarter. Alcorn State started the drive on their 20-yard line. On their first offensive play Gibbs Jr. was looking for his receiver running up the left hash mark, but Jomez Applewhite stepped in front of the pass and made his first career interception, sealing the victory for USM.

Smith finished the game with 32 rushing attempts for 118 yards. He is the first freshman to run for 100 yards or more since Jamal Woodyard did it in 2011 and the first true freshman to do it since Damion Fletcher did it in 2006.

Mullens finished the night completing 21 of 33 passes, throwing two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He tied a career-high with 45 yards rushing. Casey Martin led all receivers with 56 yards, including a 32-yard bomb he caught right before the second quarter.

USM will not have much time to celebrate as they travel to take on the second-ranked team in the country Sept. 13 at 5 p.m against Alabama.