Dominant Second Half Leads Southern Miss To 44-35 Win Over Kentucky

In a second half for the ages, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles exercised several demons in taking down an SEC opponent for the first time in over 15 years with a 44-35 win over Kentucky.

The Golden Eagles, one of the favorites to win Conference USA this season, could not have started the game in a finer fashion than the opening series on offense and defense. The Wildcats started the game with the ball on their own 23-yard line and proceeded to push their SEC foe around the field. Forcing a punt, the special teams made an impact with a partially blocked punt that was downed at the Kentucky 49-yard line.

Nick Mullens and company strolled out to the field and rolled the Wildcats for 49 yards on seven plays, Ito Smith capped the drive with an eight-yard run out of the wildcat formation, part of 34 yards gained by the junior back on the opening drive. With a Parker Shaunfield PAT, the Golden Eagles led 7-0.

After forcing Kentucky to fail on a fourth down conversion, Southern Miss abruptly fell apart. First, the offense lost ten yards on a three and out, and then the defense failed to properly cover a tunnel screen as Jeff Badet raced 72-yards to tie the game.

Another three and out ensured, followed by Kentucky hitting another long touchdown pass, this time for 43 yards to steal the lead at 14-7. Looking to respond, Mullens was picked off by J.D. Harmon at the UK 35-yard line. Seven plays later, Kentucky was again in the endzone on a nine-yard touchdown pass to take a 21-7 lead over the stunned visiting team.

The defense finally returned to action in forcing two straight punts, but interceptions in back to back drives by Mullens led to another short field for the hosts. They took advantage with a 53-yard strike to Garrett Johnson to pull ahead by three scores at 28-7.

Running backs Smith and George Payne helped earn three points back on a 10-play drive that stalled at the UK 13-yard line, but Kentucky quickly responded with another touchdown to take a 35-10 lead with :56 left in the opening half.

Little did the despondent Southern Miss fanbase know that a season changing three plays would take place in the final minute of the first half. Tyre’oune Holmes and Smith rushed the ball to the 29-yard line, and then Mullens hit JUCO transfer Isaiah Jones for a 71-yard score to pull within 35-17 at the half. With the Golden Eagles receiving the second half kickoffs, those seven points were crucial.

The Southern Miss team that stepped out in the second half was a different group. The nervous and jittery line gelled together and a defense that was gouged for multiple explosive played calmed down. Then the underdog program took Kentucky to the woodshed in every sense of the word.

Here is a transcript of the first five drives for each team in the second half:

  • USM: Touchdown (35-24)
  • UK: Fumble 
  • USM: Touchdown (35-31)
  • UK: Punt
  • USM: Touchdown (38-35)
  • UK: Interception
  • USM: Field Goal (41-35)
  • UK: Punt
  • USM: Field Goal (44-35)
  • UK: Fumble

When that torrid streak of domination by Southern Miss was over, a 35-17 deficit suddenly turned into a 44-35 lead. That is a 34-0 run in the second half. If you are wondering where that sounds familiar, look back to the Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech games from 2015 that saw basketball type runs completely swing the game in the direction of Southern Miss.

When the duct settled and the clock stuck zero, the Golden Eagles started the season 1-0 with a 44-35 win over Kentucky.

Running backs Ito Smith (36/173/1TD) and George Payne (16/100/0TD) came through with a whopping 273 yards in the win. Mullens, responding from three first half interceptions, ended the night 18-28 passing for 258 yards and two touchdowns. JUCO transfer receivers Isaiah Jones (3/93/1TD) and Allenzae Staggers (2/46/0TD) led a group of seven receivers with at least one catch.

With this win, the Golden Eagles have a real chance to head into a trip to Baton Rouge in mid-October undefeated. The season continues on September 10 with a visit from FCS foe Savannah State. Kickoff is set for 6:00 PM.

*****

Expect a full rundown of the Good, Bad, and Ugly from this performance on Labor Day.

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