Golden Eagles faced with glaring issues after disappointing home loss to Jaguars
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss’ season began on a sour note Thursday night as 14-point underdog South Alabama stunned the Golden Eagles, 32-21, in the season-opener for both schools.
The nationally televised contest was the first meeting between FBS opponents of the 2020 college football season. It was also the first clash between Southern Miss and South Alabama, whose program played its inaugural season in 2009.
The victory was USA’s first away from home since 2017, ending a 15-game road losing streak. That fact, along with its proximity to home, made the win feel a little bit sweeter for head coach Steve Campbell, formerly of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“I think I spent 25 years or so in Mississippi,” Campbell said. “I’ve got three children and my youngest was born right here in Hattiesburg … and then being at Gulf Coast right down the road, it was special. And it’s an hour-and-a-half from us. So to me, it’s a natural rivalry. Southern Miss has got a proud tradition, and we’ve only been playing football for 11 years. This was a big one for us.”
Indeed, Southern Miss’ football program has a rich, proud history, spanning more than 100 years with 24 bowl bids, eight conference titles and two claimed national championships in 1958 and 1962. On their home field Thursday night, however, the Golden Eagles fell far from their former glory, proven unprepared for the task of taking on an opponent that has yet to register a winning season as an FBS team.
“It’s tough to lose any game, especially at ‘The Rock’ to a team like that,” USM senior quarterback Jack Abraham said. “They’re a good team, but at the end of the day, it comes down to us. We didn’t play like we should have. We’ll have to get in the film room and fix it.”
Abraham completed 22 of 32 passes for 314 yards. Despite his yardage and efficiency, however, the Golden Eagles’ passing game was unable to produce any points.
The Jaguars had much more success in that department. Sophomore quarterback Desmond Trotter threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, the first being a 73-yard screen pass on the third offensive play of the game. Both touchdowns were caught by junior wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, who had six catches for 169 yards.
Even USA’s backup quarterback, another Mississippi native, got in on the action. Jackson Prep and MGCCC graduate Chance Lovertich threw his first Division I touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, completing a 52-yard strike to Kawaan Baker to extend the Jaguars’ lead to 16 points.
The biggest issue for the Golden Eagles’ offense was one the team has been all too familiar with over the past couple of years: the inability to effectively run the ball. Southern Miss finished the night with 95 yards rushing on 37 carries. More than one-third of those yards came on a 35-yard quarterback scramble by Abraham on Southern Miss’ final drive of the ballgame.
Frank Gore Jr., the son of veteran NFL running back Frank Gore, rushed for 32 yards on 12 carries in his collegiate debut. The well-known freshman also went viral for his efforts on a lateral toss to Abraham in a play that reached the end zone. The touchdown was overturned after the officials reviewed the play and determined the toss to be an illegal forward pass.
The team’s lack of offense was far from the end of its problems. Many questions were raised in the postgame press conference about a large number of missed tackles on defense, which head coach Jay Hopson acknowledged to have played a big role in the outcome.
“It didn’t help,” Hopson said. “It’s one of those things. We probably didn’t do as much tackling (as we normally do in fall camp). There were a lot of unknowns going into this game. There really were. We weren’t up to speed like a normal season.”
Several of the missed tackles resulted in extended drives for the Jaguars, who were 7-for-12 on third-down conversion attempts and 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions.
"We just know, across the board, that we have to get better as a team and see who has the biggest room for improvement," Hopson said. "The next game is in two weeks. We have a big conference game. We have to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure we clean up the mistakes we made. They are mistakes that we can clean up, but we have to be serious about cleaning them up.”
The Golden Eagles will return to The Rock on Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. against Louisiana Tech. Last year, the Bulldogs ended a four-game losing streak to the Golden Eagles with a 45-30 win in Hattiesburg.
South Alabama will be back in action next Saturday in its home opener against Tulane, with hopes of stringing together three consecutive wins for the first time since 2014. The Jaguars won their season-finale last season over Arkansas State.