AUBURN, AL (WDAM) - In many ways and on many fronts, the University of Southern Mississippi may have played its best football game of the season at Auburn University Saturday.
Yet, though they came close, the Golden Eagles could not pull off what would have been the eye-catching upset, twice pulling within a score of tying the 10th-ranked Tigers only to fall 24-13 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“It’s kind of frustrating because we had them on the ropes but we made some mistakes,” USM defensive lineman Jacques Turner said. “But other than that, I’m just proud of the effort. We did what we could do, just played full speed.”
But full speed was not enough during a day that started out drenched in sunshine and ended soaked in rain with repeated lightning delays that ended up adding more than 2 ½ hours to the game.
“First thing, I’m pleased to be 4-1 and want to thank our fans for sticking around for the two-(plus) hour delay,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That was a long delay, and our fans really stuck it out.”
Well, some did. Only about two-fifths of an announced 83,792 that had gathered to celebrate a homecoming afternoon returned to their soggy seats to watch the final 4:37 of the second quarter and the entire second half.
In fact, Auburn’s homecoming court wound up being introduced to a relatively small, yet vocal, contingent in the southeast corner of the stadium during a halftime shortened to 15 minutes.
“There weren’t nearly as many people there after the delay, so, yeah, obviously that helped a good bit with crowd noise and everything,” USM quarterback Jack Abraham said.
And the Golden Eagles (2-2) seemed to perk up after the delay, especially offensively, or at least perk up as much as it was going to against a stern Auburn defense.
“Yeah, they’re really fast, really big and strong,” said Abraham, who completed 13-of-20 passes in the first half, but only managed to accrue 49 yards off primarily receiver screens and shovel passes.
“They obviously had seen it and knew where we were and knew what was coming.”
All told, Abraham completed 30-of-44 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. But in the second half, he hit 17-of-24 for 167 yards, including a 12-yard TD pass to Quez Watkins at the start of the fourth quarter that pulled the Golden Eagles within 21-13.
But Auburn did just enough on offense and more than enough on defense to hold off the Golden Eagles the stretch.
USM’s defense limited the Tigers to 341 yards total offense, including less than 100 yards on the ground.
But Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw for 245 yards and two scores to help the Tigers get past the Golden Eagles.
Still, Stidham had his struggles. He was sacked three times, losing a fumble on a Turner strip-sack, and was harried, or hurried or hit on at least a dozen more occasions.
“It’s part of it,” Stidham said. “Growing pains, especially when you have guys that go down.”
Both of Auburn’s starting offensive tackles left the game, as did freshman running back JaTarvious Whitlock, who only carried four times for 23 yard before hitting the sideline.
USM lost receiver Jaylond Adams for the fourth quarter after suffering an injury to his lower right leg.
“I thought we were definitely physical (Saturday),” USM coach Jay Hopson said.
Auburn grabbed a 7-0 lead when Stidham lifted a a 46-yard pass past USM cornerback Ty Williams into the hands of Seth Williams.
But early in the second quarter, USM cut the deficit to 7-3 on Parker Shaunfield’s 44-yard field goal.
The Tigers made it 14-3 on a receiver sweep by Anthony Schwartz with 6:43 left in the half.
Two minutes or so later, the game went into hiatus, and when it returned the score before the lighting strikes stood as the halftime edge.
USM got back within 14-6 when Shaunfield tied his career-long field goal with a 51-yarder in the third quarter.
But Auburn answered immediately, with Stidham finding Chandler Cox with a 2-yard TD pass and a 21-6 lead. That drive included a 53-yard pass from Stidham to Darious Slayton and a pass interference call in the end zone that set up the touchdown pass.
But Abraham and Watkins hooked up for their sixth touchdown of the season to get USM back within eight points with nearly the entire fourth quarter to play.
Turner’s strip of Stidham and Paxton Schrimsher’s recovery gave USM the ball near midfield, the Golden Eagles appeared to have seized some momentum.
But two plays later, Abraham threw behind Watkins on a slant. Watkins got a hand on the pass, but only succeeded in tipping the ball to cornerback Christian Tutt, who returned the gift to USM’s 25.
Six plays later, Anders Carlson knocked through a 23-yard field goal that bumped the lead to two scores, all but clinching the game with 2 minutes to go.
“We never like losing,” Hopson said. “It’s always tough.
“But I saw a bunch of Golden Eagles that fought for 60 minutes, I guarantee you that, and that’s something that as a football coach you’re always proud of.”