The Golden Eagles are on the board.
Southern Miss pulled itself out of the Sun Belt west division basement with a 24-7 win over ULM, notching its first conference win of the season.
The Eagles blitzed ULM with 17 first-quarter points and forced the Warhawks offense into four turnovers to snap a seven-game losing streak.
It’s USM’s first FBS win since beating Rice in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile last December.
“I’ve never seen a team have to go through things that they couldn’t control like this one has,” USM coach Will Hall said after the game. “They never quit, they just keep growing. We see that. It was a great team win.”
Frank Gore Jr. ran for 131 yards and a touchdown and moved into third all-time in career rushing at USM with 3,703 yards.
Gore Jr. and a two-quarterback system utilizing both sophomore Billy Wiles and freshman Ethan Crawford produced the second 24-plus point game in as many weeks after failing to score an offensive touchdown in the previous two games against South Alabama and Old Dominion.
A 38-yard double-pass from Chandler Pittman to Latreal Jones opened the scoring in the first quarter. On the Golden Eagles’ next play from scrimmage, Wiles hit Jakarius Caston over the middle, who then raced to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown.
Southern Miss melted the game away in the fourth quarter with a touchdown run from Gore Jr at the end of a drive that ate up over seven minutes of clock.
“I’m just really proud of our kids,” Hall said. “We are so close for things to look better than what it is. That’s on me. I recognize and understand that. I believe in where we’re heading and we’re heading somewhere really special. I promise you.”
Revitalized offense through coaching shift
Since Hall relinquished play calling duties for the first time in his career after the loss at USA, the Eagles offense has moved the football with consistency and generated explosive plays.
Southern Miss has produced over 400 yards of offense in each of the last two games following the shift in coaching assignments.
Offensive line coach and coordinator Sam Gregg is now putting together the game plan and quarterbacks coach Jordy Joseph is calling the bulk of the plays.
“It’s been fun, hadn’t it?” Hall said of the job the two coaches have done. “We’ve been very balanced. It’s been a lot of fun seeing our offense execute like I know it can. I think it’ll only grow from here.”
A direct benefactor to the change has been Gore Jr. The junior now has 381 rushing yards between his last two contests and the ULM game represents his 12th 100-yard outing, moving him up to fifth in school history in such games.
“I’m extremely happy for coach Jordy,” Gore Jr said. “He was my coach last year, the running backs coach. We talked about his future because he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had from a learning standpoint. So we just talked about his future a lot and to see it unfolding in my face and I’m here to help him, that means a lot to me.”
A key change in the offense has been the injection of Crawford behind center. The Tuscaloosa native tore his ACL around this time a year ago, but has recovered well and is being utilized as a running threat alongside Gore Jr.
Crawford scored his first career touchdown last week against Appalachian State and was featured heavily in the second half against the Warhawks.
He was the primary quarterback for USM’s 14-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter and finished the contest with 38 rushing yards.
Wiles complimented with 200 passing yards for the second straight game.
“Coach Joseph, he’s one of the best teachers I’ve been around,” Wiles said. “I’ve learned so much football from him since I’ve been here... Coach Gregg is awesome. He’s always there to crack a joke. He’s not afraid to make fun of you and stuff like that. Me and coach Gregg have a great relationship. I’m happy for the two of them.”
Defense breaks through
It’s been a trying year for the USM defense. The Golden Eagles entered Saturday’s contest dead last in the FBS in scoring defense a year removed from fielding one of the Sun Belt’s better units.
The seven points allowed against the Warhawks is the fewest USM has given up in an FBS game since beating UAB 37-2 in 2019.
Three interceptions and a fourth-quarter fumble recovering by Quentin Bivens played a key role in doing that. One of those three picks came from a cornerback who started playing defense for the first time just a month ago.
Converted wide receiver Zay “Slime” Franks has started the last few games at corner due to numerous injuries in the defensive backfield. The immediate results were expected: Franks struggled.
But in the first quarter against ULM, Franks positioned himself under a ball from Blake Murphy that was badly under thrown and high-pointed it for his first career interception.
“Zay Franks and (Antavious Willis) got thrown in the fire before they were ready and they burned,” Hall said of his converted offensive players lining up at corner. “They just kept getting better. Huge interception. You see (Frank’s) ball skills... I’m so proud of Franks. He’s able to do it because he works and continues getting better at it.”
When asked if Franks will ever switch back to offense, he answered succinctly: “Never.”
George County product and Ole Miss transfer MJ Daniels recorded his third interception of the season and linebacker Hayes Maples picked off his first career pass in his 45th career game.
Around the 68-yard touchdown pass given up in the third, USM held ULM to just 3.8 yards per play and to only 10 first downs.
“It was great to see us play defense like that again,” Hall said. “We leveraged the ball better than we ever have. Give credit to our defensive staff. We took steps forward last week, but we gave up too many big plays, and it cost us. We leveraged the run and tackled the run better than we have all year versus a great rushing team and that carried over to this week.”
The Eagles have a short week of practice before facing rival Louisiana in Lafayette on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.