For the better part of the last three quarters of play Saturday afternoon, the University of Southern Mississippi defense had few answers for Rice University.
For the Golden Eagles’ sake, thank goodness USM’s offense did.
Each time Rice scored in the second half, the Golden Eagles immediately answered with touchdown drives of their own, enabling USM to outlast the Owls 43-34 at Rice Stadium.
USM led 13-0 early, but Rice scored touchdowns on five, consecutive possessions starting in the second quarter. But the Golden Eagles answered with points every time, a field goal and four touchdowns, to hold off the Owls.
The Golden Eagles never punted in the game, scoring on every one of their possessions.
After senior running back Ito Smith scored on an 18-yard run with 2 minutes, 55 seconds, left in the game, USM’s defense came up big, with linebacker Paxton Schrimsher sacking Rice quarterback Miklo Smalls to snuff out any comeback hopes Rice may have harbored.
With the win, USM (6-4, 4-2 Conference USA) became bowl-eligible for a third consecutive season and the second in a row under Coach Jay Hopson.
USM junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs, making his first start since injuring his left hand on Sept. 30, logged the first 300-yard passing game of his career with 331 yards and tying a personal best with three touchdowns.
Junior receiver Korey Robertson caught eight passes for a career-best 159 yards and two touchdowns. It marked the fourth game this season that Robertson had caught two touchdowns.
Smith, who moved past the career 4,000-yard mark, ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. It Smith’s first 100-yard game since being nicked up at Louisiana Tech University on Oct. 21 and his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
Junior Parker Shaunfield kicked three, first-half field goals, including a career-long, 51-yarder on the final play of the first half to leave the Golden Eagles up 22-14 at the break.
Rice running back Nahshon Ellerbe plaugued the Golden Eagles, running for 153 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. Austin Walter added another score on an 18-yard run in the first half.
The teams combined Saturday for 77 points and 898 yards total offense.
USM’s 517 yards total offense marked its second-best performance of the season on a day when the Golden Eagles never had to punt. On eight possessions, USM scored three field goals and five touchdowns.
The Owls (1-9, 1-5), which dropped its eighth consecutive game, went for 381 yards, including 254 yards on the ground. The rushing yards were the most surrendered by the Golden Eagles this season and came one week after USM limited the University of Tennessee to 95 yards rushing.
The Golden Eagles jumped out to a 13-0 lead on Shaunfield field goals of 42 yards and 29 yards and Griggs’ 51-yard touchdown pass to freshman Tim Jones. It was the fourth catch of the season for Jones’ and the first TD catch of his USM career.
Rice cut the lead to 13-7 on Walter’s run, but Smith capped a 65-yard drive with a 2-yard run to boost the lead back to 19-7. Ellerbe scored on a 7-yard run to get the Owls within 19-14, but Shaunfield’s long kick sailed just inside the left upright to leave USM up by eight at the break.
Neither team’s defense could stop the other in the second half. But every time Rice scored, USM respopned.
Ellerbe scored on a 12-yard run, but Rice’s two-point conversion attempt failed and USM still led 22-20.
Griggs came back with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Robertson to push the lead to nine.
After Ellerbe scored on a 17-yard run, Griggs and Robertson hooked up again, and when Robertson made two tacklers miss, the result was a 57-yard touchdown and 36-27 USM lead.
Robertson leads the Golden Eagles with 59 catches for 861 yards and nine touchdowns.
Ellerbe went over from 1-yard out for Rice’s last score, but Smith went around the left side to give the Golden Eagles breathing room with less than 3 minutes to play.
USM returns Saturday to M.M. Roberts Stadium to wrap up the home portion of its schedule, welcoming the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (1-9, 1-5) for a 2 p.m. kickoff.