The Golden Eagles played well enough on defense and special teams to win Saturday night against UTEP, but like so many games already this season, the offense couldn’t deliver its end of the bargain.
The result was USM’s fourth straight loss, 26-13, to the Miners in Conference USA in front of an announced crowd of 26,049 at MM Roberts Stadium.
Southern Miss fell to 1-5 overall and 0-2 in the C-USA game. The miners improved to 5-1 and 2-0.
“Same song, another verse,” Southern head coach Miss Will Hall said. “This is the way every game is going to be for us. We’re going to be in a lot of one-score games, games that we can win, and we just have to find a way to do it. ”
Indeed, the Golden Eagles only managed a 15-yard rushing goal, thanks to five sacks for 47 loss yards, plus seven more tackles for loss, for a total of 67 yards on 12 negative plays.
“It’s been like that most of my life,” said Frank Gore Jr., freshman of the Southern Miss, whose hard-earned 43-yard net led the Golden Eagles on the ground.
“I just have to take what they give me and try to make some big plays. We have to get back to training and keep working hard and improving.
Both teams started the night as if it would be an offensive blast. UTEP kicked off the game and amassed 70 yards in 11 games, scoring a 17-yard run from Ronald Awatt.
Southern Miss responded with a killer offense, a 75-yard walk in nine plays, with the 31-yard touchdown from Jake Lange to Jason Brownlee.
On the Miners’ scoring campaign, quarterback Gavin Hardison scored 3 for 4 for 36 passing yards. But it was only 4 of 13 the rest of the way.
“Every time we go off the pitch we chat with the coaches about the concept, what’s going on at the back, the routes they’re going on and what we’re thinking,” Southern defensive back Miss Malik said. Shorts.
“We tried to do some things to make their quarterback uncomfortable. But that’s just coaching.
The Golden Eagles’ offensive woes really started to show in the next series, after a UTEP punt.
In the first game of the second quarter, Lange was knocked out on a mid pass, the first of two critical errors for Southern Miss’s freshman quarterback.
“I think our defense played really well,” said Hall. “I thought they had a good plan for us, slowing the game down, and they had good race plans that got them to do some races.
“I thought we had made a few plays in the kicking game. But we’re just a really bad attacking football team right now. We just don’t generate any consistency, and when there is a play to be made to get us past the bump, we just don’t.
Southern Miss showed her courage midway through the second quarter after Hardison led the miners to the Golden Eagle 5-yard line, mostly on a 55-yard pass to Tyrin Smith.
After a winless first try, a high snap cost the miners 10 yards and a third pass was interrupted in the end zone by Camron Harrell. Gavin Baechle’s 32-yard field goal attempt was wide on the left.
But a three-and-out handed the ball over to the UTEP, and this time the Miners conceded it, as second wide receiver Jacob Cowing backhanded around the left end and ran 53 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
The Golden Eagles went nowhere with the opening possession in the second half, and Mason Hunt’s 60-yard punt was knocked down at UTEP 1.
It was part of a big night for Hunt, who put in six punts for an average of 51.7 yards and dropped four inside the 20s.
“No doubt he’s been a great weapon for us,” Hall said. “When you can stop teams inside the 20 or on the goal line it definitely helps our defense.”
In the first play of the miners’ practice, Hardison threw a double cover pass down the right sideline and Shorts was the man below who benefited by intercepting the pass at UTEP 38.
But on the third try, Lange was hit as he passed, the ball came loose and after a few hot potato moments it ended up in the hands of UTEP linebacker Breon Hayward, who scolded 55 yards for a grueling score.
“It was devastating,” Hall said. “We had the right game called, Brownlee had beaten her man and it was going to be an explosive game for us. Instead, it was a great game for them.
If anything, however, what happened next was even more devastating. Intrepid by the touchdown, Lange converted passes from 30 yards to Jakarius Caston, 32 yards to Gore and another to Caston from 16 yards to put the Golden Eagles at UTEP 3.
Gore could only get one yard over two tries, and then reserve quarterback Jack Walker came on for a pair of running plays. The first got nothing and Walker was stopped inside the 1 on the fourth down.
“It was embarrassing,” Hall said. “We had two good leveraged runs in the first and second downs and we didn’t get anything. We went in lineup I, with Jack Walker in there, because he gives us a better presence when running.
“We probably should have put it on early in this series, but we thought we could do it with Frank. We get that right there and we have a chance.”
That Gore couldn’t dent the end zone illustrated his night. The talented freshman had four receptions for 54 yards.
“I hope this will continue,” Gore said. “Anything I can do to help my team try to win is what I’m going to do, whether it’s run, block, catch, pass, whatever it takes.”
Although he ran for his life most of the night, Lange had another solid quarterback game, completing 20 of 31 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns.
“That’s it,” Hall said of the Golden Eagles’ offensive line problems. “I said from the start, we’re going to base this offense on what our quarterback can do and what our O-line can do.
“We had a lot of injuries in the quarterback, but also on our line. We had a lot of moving parts in attack, guys who had to step up and play, and we’re not playing well.
Too bad the Golden Eagles were exceptional in defense in the second half, limiting UTEP to just 85 yards of attack after halftime.
But it was too little, too late.
Supported by his own 15 to start a practice early in the fourth quarter, Lange was sent out of the end zone in the third and 13 of 12 to give UTEP some safety.
And Awatt capped a fine evening of work after the free-kick, rushing 44 yards to set Baechle up for a 34-yard basket to put the game out of reach. Awatt finished with 159 rushing yards on 18 carries, and the team Miners ran for 265 yards.
“I like the way the defenders fought tonight,” Shorts said. “But we missed a few tackles tonight, and we usually don’t give up that many rushing yards, and tonight we gave up 250.”
The Golden Eagles had a consolation touchdown, as they covered 75 yards in seven games, scoring on a 3-yard pass from Lange to Demarcus Jones.
But UTEP recovered the Golden Eagles’ in-play kick attempt and ran out of time.
Southern Miss will be back home next week for another C-USA outing against UAB. Kick-off next Saturday is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
“It’s not necessarily a matter of trust,” Hall said. “This is a daily improvement for each individual in the program. Confidence will come when preparation meets opportunity. Preparation and talent meet opportunity.
“We have to take the players we have and constantly improve with our performance on the pitch. We have to train these kids and they have to improve individually. If we do this, we will collectively improve ourselves.