Southern Miss pulls away from Rice

HATTIESBURG – It was a slow start of the Golden Eagles’ offense, but senior quarterback Nick Mullens and the passing game got hot and pulled away from the Rice Owls 44-28 to move their record to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in Conference USA play.

Mullens passed for 591 yards – a school record – on 25-of-36 passing with four touchdowns. Even though he said after the game he doesn’t play video games, he looked like he was in a video game on the field.

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“We played great as team,” Mullens said. “We started out slow in the first half, then really came together. We found ways to make plays, take advantage of opportunities and each player did their job. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mullens laughed when asked if he’s played anywhere close to that performance before. “Nah,” he said. 

The running game struggled throughout the game, as USM only had 111 yards in the game compared to its 247-yard per game average, so the passing game needed to pick up the slack. Junior running back Ito Smith average four yards a carry, rushing for 77 yards on 19 attempts and a touchdown. It was the first time all season he didn’t surpass the 100-yard mark.

The long ball

Entering the night, Southern Miss’ longest pass completion was for 71 yards, which is outstanding. On Saturday night, Mullens completed three passes longer than 71 yards.

Junior receiver Allenzae Staggers caught the first pass for a 75-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 10-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The second pass was to junior tight end Julian Allen for 82 yards to set up a field goal that pushed the USM lead to 13-7 late in the first half. The third play was to Staggers again, and for a 93-yard touchdown and a 27-14 lead for Southern Miss.

“It’s fun out there; it’s fun playing,” Mullens said. “(Rice) was playing a little tight, so we knew we were going to have some opportunities. It was just a matter of connecting on those opportunities.” 

At one point in the game, Staggers averaged more than the 71-yard season-high with a cool 83 yards per catch. He finished the night with a school-record 292 yards on six receptions – a 48.7-yard per catch average.

“Exhausted,” Staggers said at the postgame press conference. “… I just used my legs and just ran. That’s all I’ve ever been taught and that’s all I’ve been doing. Just run.”

For the record, Staggers didn’t know he was getting the ball on those long plays until he looked up and saw the ball in the air.

Even senior Dylan Bradley enjoyed the video game-like performance from Mullens and Staggers.

“That’s something I do on Madden. I throw the ball a lot,” Bradley said. “They had 591 yards passing. That’s incredible. The offense had me excited the whole game.”

Nasty bunch

Coming into the game, Southern Miss’ season-high for sacks was five against Savannah State. Led by senior Dylan Bradley’s 3.5 sacks, the Golden Eagles racked up seven sacks in the game.

“Team effort, that’s all I can say,” Bradley said. “My guys that are next to me, rushing off the edge, them guys did a great job. Even the linebackers, when they were blitzing, they made the quarterback step up and I had to be in the right spot. Those 3.5 sacks wouldn’t have happened without my teammates.

Jay Hopson quotes:

Opening statement:

Hard fought win. I thought for the second week in a row it was kind of a slow start, but our guys kept digging. I thought we played hard. I thought the first half we played really well defensively, and I thought the second half we played really well offensively. Kind of a tale of two halves with us right there, but we battled hard for 60 minutes, and it’s good to get the W.

On ever seeing long pass plays:

I don’t know if I have. Not that I can remember

On what it was like to see the long plays:

It was nice to see that, for sure. If you were wearing the black and gold, that was really nice to see. Those guys did a great job. Those were big plays in the game, so it was a tremendous job that.

On defensive line:

I thought we did a great job of getting a lot of three-and-outs in the first half, and getting the ball back. It took us awhile offensively to get moving, but I thought in the second half we really moved the ball well. When the other unit was kind of struggling a little bit, the other side picked it up. That was good to see.

On Rice’s defense in the second half:

It’s not anything that we say, it was just Allenzae got himself into some 1-on-1 situations he was able to win. Nick found him and got the ball to him.

On Allenzae Staggers being the No. 1 target on those plays:

Nick’s a good quarterback and he’s going to put the ball where he’s got to put it. There was a nice shot to Julian (Allen), too. I thought we threw and caught the ball well today.

On passing game breaking through:

That was important. Two weeks ago, we had a ton of missed opportunities and had some drops. I thought our guys came out today and took advantage and made some huge plays.

On needing the break through game:

It makes us a balanced football team, because we can throw it and we can run it. That’s always a good thing when you can be dangerous in both, and that’s what we’re striving to be.

On being surprised of Mullens’ performance:

No, it doesn’t. He’s that type of quarterback. Again, it’s always great to have a quarterback of that caliber. He’s just a special quarterback and does a great job.

On offensive line:

Did a great job. They protected well, they gave him time. It all starts from those guys up front and Ito [Smith] and George [Payne] ran the ball hard toward the end when they got the opportunities the O-line did a good job of protecting them.

On Staggers being so open:

Allenzae is a talented athlete but sometimes in football it’s a combination of both. He got in some one on one situations and he made them play.

On Rice being able to move the ball in the second half:

Gap integrity. That was one thing we talked about. That’s one thing in the late third, early fourth that I wasn’t really happy with. A couple of times where we didn’t fit our gaps and they made us pay. That little running back had two or three runs. It’s always good to correct after a win, but it’s certainly I thought we were playing almost dominant for awhile, then all of the sudden, boom, they found a little honey hole and we have to make sure we have to fit out gaps.

On talking to the team at halftime:

We’ve actually played better in the second half, and we’re handling our adjustments well. The last possession was a big defensive stand. Give Rice credit, they came in a played hard. We had a missed opportunity early, that long run on the screen was a big play. They punched it out right at the goal line. We had some missed opportunities, and maybe it could have gave us a little more juice early. But, I thought in the second half, our offense was in rhythm.

On the video game numbers offensively:

To be honest, I didn’t realize it was that high. I guess when you’re in the heat of the battle, I knew it was a decent amount, but I didn’t know it was to that magnitude.

Team Notes From Southern Miss:

- Southern Miss has won consecutive games in the Rice series for the first time and has a 3-4 record against the Owls.

- The Golden Eagles are now 2-0 in C-USA and have extended their regular-season win streak to eight games.

- Southern Miss is 4-1 for the first time since 2011.

- Head coach Jay Hopson is the first Southern Miss coach to win four of his first five games since Curley Hallman in 1988. That squad finished 10-2.

- The squad’s winning streak versus Texas schools reached seven contests.

Offensive Notes:

- The 702 yards of offense broke the school record that was set at Rice (682) in 2015. It also set a new M.M. Roberts Stadium record, breaking the 654 against Rice in 2011.Four of Southern Miss’ seven 75-plus yard plays on the year came Saturday.

- Those four included Julian Allen’s career-long 82-yard catch and Allenzae Staggers' receptions of 75, 81 and 93 yards.

- Nick Mullens’ 591 yards passing shattered Austin Davis’ previous school record of 461 yards at Rice in 2008. He now has three of the top four passing games in Golden Eagle history.

- Mullens has thrown a touchdown in 21 straight games.

- Mullens has thrown for 200 yards or more in 31 games. He has thrown for over 300 yards 15 times in his career and 400 or more yards three times.

- Allenzae Staggers’ total receiving yards of 292 is the most receiving yards in Southern Miss history. The previous record was 260 yards set by Kendrick Lee at Houston in 1996. That C-USA Championship squad was also honored tonight.

- Staggers’ three TD catches were the most by a Golden Eagle since Mike Thomas had the same in 2015 vs. North Texas.

- Southern Miss had four pass plays of over 75 yards tonight. The last time Southern Miss completed a pass play of 75 yards or more was at Marshall in 2013 (Nick Mullens to Markese Triplett, 81 yards).

- Mullens pass play to Allenzae Staggers in the third quarter was the longest pass play of his career.

- Mullens passing TD to Staggers in the third quarter put him over 10,000 yards for his career.

- Ito Smith has scored a touchdown (rushing or receiving) in 10 straight games.

Defensive Notes:

- Southern Miss posted seven sacks on the night, its most since having seven at Marshall in 2009.

- The Golden Eagles entered Saturday No. 8 in passing yards allowed (144.8 per game) and held Rice to 166.

- Dylan Bradley had 3 ½ of those. The school record (4) was set by Cedric Scott at Houston in 2000 and Chris Jackson vs. Louisiana Tech in 1983.

- D’Nerius Antoine’s game-high 11 tackles were a career-high.

- Rice’s touchdown in the fourth quarter was the first allowed by Southern Miss in that stanza on the year.

- Southern Miss shut out an opponent in the first quarter (3-0) for the second time this season. (Savannah State, 21-0).

Special Team Notes:

- Parker Shaunfield has made nine straight field goals this season so far. Five of those were beyond 40 yards.