HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ The University of Southern Mississippi gave up a 73-yard touchdown on the third play of its season-opening football game Thursday night and found itself trailing 63 seconds into the 2020 season.
The situation didn’t change over the next 58 minutes, 57 seconds, as the Jaguars piled up 526 total yards pulling away whenever USM got within striking distance to secure a 32-21 victory at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
“It’s tough,” said USM senior quarterback Jack Abraham, who completed 22-of-32 passes for 314 yards in the loss. “Any loss is tough, but to lose to a team like that at home …
“We just didn’t play the way we needed to.”
The Golden Eagles (0-1) did not, and as a result, dropped the first of seven home games.
“It’s a tough loss,” said senior receiver Tim Jones, who posted the third 100-yard receiving game of his career with 139 yards on six catches.
“I came in here expecting to win, and we all came in here expecting to win as a team.”
Instead, the Jaguars (1-0), who came into the game a 13-point underdog after finishing 2019 with just two wins in 12 games, picked up their first road win since 2017.
And USA left little doubt who the better team was in the first meeting on the football field between programs located just about 100 miles apart.
Two interceptions and a missed field goal, all in the first half, allowed USM to hang within striking distance of the Jaguars, for most of the game.
USA didn’t all but clinch the win until Diego Guajardo’s 34-yard field goal made the game a two-score affair with 1:40 to play,
Jaguars sophomore quarterback Desmond Trotter completed 16-of-27 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. When Trotter had to leave a drive after getting a helmet in the back of his thigh, junior back-up Chance Lovertich would finish 2-of-3 for another 64 passing yards and a touchdown.
All told, the Jaguars threw for 363 yards, with a trio of USA receivers doing most of damage, including a pair of 100-yard “Jalens.”
Jalen Tolbert caught six passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first player in the program’s history to catch multiple touchdown passes in back-to-back games.
Jalen Wayne also caught six passes for 101 yards, while Kawaan Baker had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown.
“It wasn’t a secret what they wanted to do, get the ball in the hands of (Tolbert) and (Baker),” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “They made big plays, and we gave up big plays, and that right there is the tale of the tape.
“It was a first game, but that’s no excuse.”
The biggest play provided a long glimpse into the rest of the evening.
Facing third-and-8 at USM’s 28-yard line, Trotter found Tolbert hunkered in a deep edge hole in the Golden Eagles,’ zone. The play would have been a first down regardless, but when Tolbert sidestepped one defender, broken an arm tackle to get to the sideline and then sped away for a 73-yard touchdown, it gave USA a 6-0 lead just 1 minute, 3 seconds into the game.
USM defensive back Malik Shorts said shaky tackling cost the Golden Eagles dearly.
“As an unit, we tackled very poorly,” Shorts said. “Very poorly.
“The effort was there. We were swarming to the ball. We just have got to want it more.”
USM did itself no favors with seven penalties for 49 yards. The Golden Eagle defense not only gave up gobs of yardage, but gave yards up when it had opportunities to get off the field.
USA went 7-of-12 on third down conversions and 2-of-2 on fourth-down opportunities.
On offense, the Golden Eagles twice settled for red-zone field goals and then missed another while trying to lasso in USA from behind.
“We can’t get down there and not score touchdowns,” Abraham said. “It’s a pet peeve of mine. We get down there, and then can’t finish it off.”
Part of the issue was a running game that netted minus 10 yards in the first half, and really didn’t get anything going until freshman Frank Gore Jr. (32 yards, 12 carries) provided a third-quarter spark.
Senior Kevin Perkins added 30 yards on eight carries, all in the second half.
But USM averaged just 2.6 yards a carry, netting 95 yards on 37 carries.
Meanwhile, USA averaged 4.3 yards a carry, netting 163 yards in 38 carries. Carlos Davis led the way for the Jaguars with 85 yards on 15 carries and Stone High School product Terrion Avery adding 26 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“We’ve got to clean up our sloppiness,” Hopson said. “We’ve got to clean up our alignments, our assignments, our tackling, our execution. All those things, you’ve got to clean up.
“It wasn’t pretty to watch.”