HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - In a season pockmarked by COVID-19, departures and defeats, the University of Southern Mississippi football team saved its best for last.
The Golden Eagles had their way every whicha way against one of the nation’s statistically stingiest defenses in bringing the curtain down on a tumultuous 2020 season with a 45-31 victory Thursday night against visiting Florida Atlantic University at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
“Ending the season on a high note, and you know how the season has been, it’s been tough, so it just actually felt good to get a win,” USM senior recover Tim Jones said. “All year, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs, well, a lot of downs really, and to pull this one out at the end, to end the season right, we were just so hyped up and having fun.”
Thursday marked what was likely the final contest for the current coaching staff after USM’s recent hiring of new head coach Will Hall.
Interim head coach Tim Billings said as rocky as the season had been, 2020 and especially Thursday night, would stay with him.
“We took a team picture the other day in all of our rag-tag practice jerseys, so we had black and red and white, and that’s how I wanted it,” Billings said. “We looked like the ‘Bad News Bears,’ and that’s kind of how this year has been
“I’ve been doing this for 42 years. I don’t have any of those team pictures anywhere, but this one, I promise you, will be up in my office wherever I’m at. This is a group I will always remember and a year I’ll always remember.”
Sophomore quarterback Trey Lowe accounted for the first touchdowns of his Golden Eagle career, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another.
In his fourth start of the season, Lowe overcame an early interception to turn in his best performance of the season, completing 13-of-19 passes for 209 yards, including touchdown passes of 5 yards to Jones and 43 yards to junior Jason Brownlee.
Lowe, who started the season behind senior Jack Abraham and junior Tate Whatley on the depth chart, also contributed 70 yards on 16 carries, including a 13-yard touchdown run.
Billings credited Jones, who organized postpractice work with Lowe and the receiving corps.
“I’ll tell you, Tim Jones took him and every day made him and the receivers stay after practice and they threw,” Billings said. “You could see the difference (Thursday).
“Trey did a great job of handling everything, but I have to give Tim sone kudos, too, for making them stay out there and work together.”
Working together is exactly what all USM (3-7, 2-4 Conference USA) got Thursday night, with all three phases of the game contributing.
USM’s offense rolled up 514 yards, including 305 yards rushing. It marked the first 500-yard game of the season and the first time the Golden Eagles had cracked the 300-yard mark in four years.
Freshman Frank Gore Jr. Turned in his third, 100-yard rushing effort of the year, netting 111 yards on just nine carries, including a 73-yard touchdown run. All of Gore’s 100-yard efforts coincided with USM’s three wins.
Senior Kevin Perkins added 71 yards on 15 carries, including a team-high seventh touchdowns run from 2 yards out.
Jones moved into fourth place on USM’s all-time receptions list after hauling in six passes for 65 yards. Brownlee had three catches for 81 yards, while Antavious Willis had two catches for 28 yards.
The 45 points the Golden Eagles scored were a high for the season.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles allowed 326 total yards in the game and just one touchdown in the second half. FAU (5-3, 4-2) scored its fourth touchdown on an incomplete backward pass that was ruled a fumble and recovered and returned 43 yards for a score by sophomore safety Armani-Eli Adams.
Special teams came up with a 39-yard Briggs Bourgeois field goal and six extra points and one of the season’s biggest plays, a 100-yard-plus kickoff return.
FAU senior running back James Charles second touchdown of the night, a 1-yard run, brought the Owls within a score of the Golden Eagles, 31-24, with less than 4 minutes to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, junior defensive back Camron Harrell found a tunnel in the middle, then veered to his right, sidestepping one tackle to beat everyone else to the corner of the coverage before sipping down the sideline.
“Growing up, that’s something you always think about doing,” Harrell said. “I saw a little crease to the right, and then I just did what I do best. It was like, ‘I’m not down yet, so just run, just run.’”
Adams’ fumble return got FAU back within a touchdown after three quarters, but USM put the finishing touches on the win by driving 90 yards on nine running plays against the nation’s sixth-ranked defense.
Perkins capped the drive with his touchdown run.
“We just felt like we needed to find a way to run the football,” Billings said. “I have to give the offensive line and (assistant c)oach [Ryan] Stanchek a lot of credit. When we could run the ball on them, we just physically got after them.
“I was just so impressed with that last drive. We started about the 10-yard line and we just physically ran over them. I think we kind of took the wheel a little bit and showed how prepared we were.”