HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ Don’t let football folks tell you that what happened in the past doesn’t matter.
And while what happened last year may, tactically, have no impact on the present, football players have memories like elephants: they don’t forget.
Which made Saturday all the sweeter for those University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles who had come up short the past few years against the University of North Texas.
USM quarterback Jack Abraham threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns as the Golden Eagles topped the Mean Green 45-27 before a homecoming crowd of 25,225 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
“We had a sour taste in our mouth after North Texas last year, leaving a lot of points off the board,” said Abraham, who has put up three of the top passing performances in Golden Eagle history in less than 1 ½ seasons.
“(Saturday night), we cashed in.”
USM (4-2, 2-0 Conference USA) snapped a three-game losing streak to UNT by logging back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
“This was one of those weeks as a football coach where you’re proud of your entire football team,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “It was a good win, and we’ll enjoy it (Saturday night.).
“It makes waking up in the morning on my birthday a much better experience.”
The Golden Eagles topped the 500-yard mark in total offense (563 yards) for the third time this season, opening conference play topping the 500 yards.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while,” Abraham said. “When you can put up 45 points and (more than) 500 yards, it’s a blast. Everyone else is enjoying it, too.”
Abraham’s passing yards Saturday marked only the seventh, 400-yard-plus passing game in USM history. Abraham threw for a career-high 463 yards at Troy earlier this season and topped 400 yards against Rice University in 2018.
USM’s defense held a high-octane North Texas offense to 378 total yards. The Mean Green came in averaging 451 yards per game.
North Texas junior running back DeAndre Torrey, who ran for 95 yards and three touchdowns in 2018 against the Golden Eagles, was limited to 61 yards Saturday.
Mean Green senior quarterback Mason Fine, C-USA’s preseason offensive player of the year, threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns before exiting with six minutes left in the third quarter.
Fine appeared to have hurt his left shoulder when he was sacked by USM end Terry Whittington. One series later, after being sacked by Whittington and linebacker Darius Kennedy, Fine lay motionless on the turf before being helped up and guided to the sideline.
Redshirt freshman Jason Bean led North Texas to a late score, but threw for just 39 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
“The pressure we had was the difference,” said USM senior linebacker Racheem Boothe, who returned to the field for the first time since being injured on Sept. 14 at Troy University.
“When we normally play against (UNT quarterback) Mason Fine, we don’t have much pressure. This year, we got pressure on (Fine) and he could never sit back to make the perfect throw.”
USM also came up with two interceptions in a game for the first time this season, with Rachuan Mitchell and Ky’el Hemby snagging their first of the year.
USM broke on top 6-0 when senior running back D’Michael Harris turned a flanker screen into a 59-yard touchdown on the opening possession of the game.
“We had a little, quick, screen pass type of play,” Harris said. “I looked at Tim (Jones’) block and I looked at Jaylond Adams’ block. Jaylond just killed the corner, and then it was me, one-on-one with safety, I just turned the jets on.”
Before his evening was through, Harris had become the first Golden Eagle this season to score three times in a game, rush for two touchdowns in a game and run for 100 yards in a game.
Harris, who has three of the seven-longest plays from scrimmage by a Golden Eagle this season, ran for 103 yards on 13 carries, including scoring runs of 60 yards and 13 yards.
He also caught five passes for 79 yards, including that 59-yard touchdown reception.
“His speed is certainly something that kills,” Hopson said. “I knew he had it in his blood because I knew his uncles. His Uncle Reggie was the terror of the Little League in Vicksburg a long time ago.
“(D’Michael) is a young man who is extremely talented and can do a lot of things.”
Quez Watkins came up 2 yards shy from logging his second, 200-yard receiving game of the season, finishing with eight catches for 198 yards. He had a 14-yard touchdown catch and a 72-yard gain on a reception that set up another score.
“It’s hard to guard him, for sure,” Abraham said. “It’s really ‘pick-your-poison’ at this point.
“Whoever they’re guarding, I’ll throw it to the one they’re not.”
After seeing USM take the early lead, North Texas came right back.
Torrey returned the kickoff 45 yards to midfield and then ran for 5 yards on first down, before Fine found Jyaire Shorter for a 45-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead.
Harris answered, popped through a hole in the middle and running away from would-be tacklers for 60 yards to give USM a short-lived 13-7 lead.
Fine threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Jaelon Darden, who was wide open after a play-action apparently caused a blown coverage in the USM secondary.
UNT, up 14-13, got the ball back quickly, but Mitchell’s interception set up USM at the North Texas 12-yard line, and Abraham immediately found tight end Ray Ladner for his first career reception.
“He looked a little lost in the endzone, like he didn’t know what to do,” Abraham said. “I was happy for him. He was wide open, and thank God, he caught it.”
When Jaylond Adams fought his way into the end zone with a 2-point Abraham pass, the Golden Eagles led 21-14.
Fine and Darden hooked up for second time, scoring on a 2-yard pass, but North Texas missed the extra point and trailed 21-20.
Abraham capped the first half scoring with his team-high third touchdown run of the season, a 1-yard smash that put USM up 28-20 at halftime.
USM then grabbed the game by the throat, scoring on Andrew Stein’s 35-yard field goal, Watkins’ 14-yard touchdown catch and Harris’ 13-yard scoring run, grabbing a 45-20 lead with 6 minutes left to play.
A wide-open Darden hauled in his third score of the game on a 20-yard pass from Bean when a USM defender fell down with 2:34 to play.
But it was for too little, far too late.
“We gave up a few plays that we shouldn’t have, and we could have executed on those plays a lot better,” Whittington said. “Overall, for the scheme of the game, we did what we were supposed to and we handled everything that we needed to.”
The Golden Eagles take to the road for the first conference away game, heading to Ruston, La., Saturday to take on Louisiana Tech University at 2:30 p.m.