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Southern Miss 44, Rice 28

Rice takes second-quarter lead, down by one score at half, but USM wins going away, winds up setting own all-time total yardage record

On a night when the Rice defense did not distinguish itself, Owl DB J D Blasingame did, saving at least one score with a forced turnover (Bobbie McDuffie photo)
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HOUSTON (Oct. 1) -- OK, admittedly, we did not make the trip to Hattiesburg. Why should we have? I mean, Hattiesburg? Been there, done that.

Seems the Rice Owls sort of came up with a ‘been there, done that’ effort themselves this benighted evening, playuing hard, starting out strong, taking an early lead, and then succumbing to the same old bugaboos that have been bugging them for what, the past ten years or so? Maybe 15?


It was a succession of “Number 28's”, as Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens threw for a school-record 591 yards, 292 of them to brother Allenzae Staggers,  four long touchdown bombs being stitched together to the delight of the hometown crowd, as the the Southern Miss Golden Eagles flew past the Rice Owls 44-28, in a game which saw the homestanding bunch set yet another school total offense mark.

Of course the previous two times they did so, they did so against these self-same Institute birds, most recently last year in a 65-10 walkover at Rice Stadium.

This year, though, they didn’t beat the spread. Heh-heh.

But the Eagles of the Free State of Jones romped pretty much freely, when they choiced to take to the air; as Mullens and Staggers Lee connected on touchdowns of 75, 81 and 93 yards, pounding the Owls back into a hole each time they gamely tried to dig themselves out.

Still, it was a ball game early – just like the Owls’ first four games, er, losses, of the season.

It was Samuel Stewart, who had been missing in action since suffering an injury early the season opener at WKU, who gave Rice a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, combining with Tyler Stehling on a seven-yard touchdown pass at the 9:03 point.

But how long did that lead last? Try, say, 11 seconds, because here come another Numba 28. USM’s first play from scrimmage after the ensuing kickoff, Mullens and Staggers Lee combined on a 75-yard scoring strike to wrest away the lead from the Owls for good.

Nonetheless, it was only 13-7 at the half, despite the Owls’ having given up several acres of first-half yardage to the locals. Rice head coach David Bailiff was profuse in his credits.

“The defense kept us in the game in the first half,” he said afterwards. “J T Blasingame, when you look, running the screen down and punching that ball out, where we recovered in the end zone...”

“Then J T Ibe punching the ball out, on a wheel route, holding them to a field goal on that possession,” he added.

“Then there was V J Banks on the interception, in the first half, that kept us close in the game,” DB noted for good measure.

On the night, Sam Stewart rushed for a career-high 132 yards and scored three touchdowns, adding a pair of TDs on the ground from 24 and 17 yards after his seven-yard scoring catch-and-tumble into the end zone.

“I haven't played since week one,” Sam noted afterwards, “so I was excited to get back on the field, to be able to come here what I came to do, really.”

“The O-line was blocking great,” he said. “Some of the guys who had to step in this week, they did their part; their ability is just going to improve from here. The wide receivers on the perimeter were blocking on the perimeter as well as catching it; we were making plays that we hadn't really been making at the beginning of the season.”

Meanwhile, however, the defense gave up 702 yards while insisting on covering the fleet-footed USM wideouts on a 1-on-1 basis throughout the game. As in, no adjustments.

To close out the Owls’ scoring – 28 points being by far their highest total thus far in the season -- Tyler Stehling hit Zach Wright with an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth. Stehling completed 14 of 18 passes on the night for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

It should be pointed out that the Owls were without five guys who'd started in the previous game last week, including running back Darik Dillard, center Trey Martin and guard Peter Godber on offense and defensive linemen Zach Abercrumbia and Carl Thompson on defense.

True freshman Joseph Dill stepped into the void left by Godber, becoming the first true frosh to start for Rice on the offensive line since Scott Mitchell in 2007.

Corey Klingler, who took over as a starter at guard in week two, moved to center in place of Martin. Isaiah Edwards shifted from tackle to guard and Sam Pierce returned to the starting lineup at tackle.

On the defensive side, redshirt freshman Roe Wilkins joined his Hardin Jefferson HS teammate Blain Padgett in the starting lineup along with Preston Gordon.


Despite the apparent USM runaway, Coach Bailiff was stiff-upper-lipped after the contest.

“I thought the effort of the football team tonight may have been the greatest effort of the year,” he saide. “I really thought our offense started getting in a rhythm that we haven't seen this year.

"We're a team that's getting better every rep. We're learning. We're growing. As long as we keep playing this hard, we're going to be in great shape.”

One thing’s for sure – there’ll be no loss in the offing for the Owls this coming Saturday.

They have the week off.

--P.T.H.

HOUSTON (Sept. 29) -- The Rice Owls are off to Hattiesburg for a road contest against 3- 1 Southern Mississippi, perhaps resolute in the effort to wrest their first win of the season, but with all the stats and circumstances pretty much stacked against them in the event.

It was in 2007, David Bailiff’s first year at the Rice football helm, that the Owls first scratched the winning column in Hattiesburg after an 0-4 start. So there’s historical precedent for a repeat of Coach Bailiff’s first win ever at Rice.


However.... that time, USM gifted the Owls with seven turnovers in the game, Chase Clement was at quarterback and beginning to feel firm footing beneath him, and there was a guy named James Casey lining up and making plays all over the field for his Owl team.

No, this upcoming contest has to be viewed much more in the light cast by last year’s debacle in Rice Stadium, where USM quarterback Jeff Mullens and his Eagles hung a 65-10 Homecoming humiliation on the local entrant.

Mullens returns as the man under for USM this season; he’s in fine fettle; and he’s got a veteran offensive line replete with returning starters to provide him with all the “max protection” his heart desires.

Put pencil to paper, and frankly there just doesn't seem to be any way on this one.

All of Rice’s Kryptonite factors: mobile, talented, experienced passing quarterback, varied offensive attack, sturdy deep passing game, aggressive defensive line, lots of transfer and juco talent showing up on the opponent’s depth chart – it’s all there.

The Golden Eagles were near-unanimous pre-season picks for first place in C-USA’s western division, and, save for a stumble against correspondence-school Troy, they’ve met with unbridled success in September.

First came a 44-35 road win over SEC entrant Kentucky, followed by a 56-0 glorified scrimmage against Savannah State, after which came their gift-filled 37-31 home loss to the Men of Troy, topped off by a solid 34-7 win over UTEP last week in El Paso.

So, just for fun, let’s do a little math.....Rice loses to Army by 31-14, that’s 17; Army blitzes UTEP by 66-14; that’s 42; UTEP loses at home to these Southern Misses, 34-7....aw, never mind.

In order to be competitive, much less pull off an upset win, Rice will have to contend with a multitude of talent scattered around the field for the Southern Mississippians.

As mentioned, all-league quarterback Jeff Mullens returns for his senior season, sporting a 132 QB efficiency rating, having tossed for 228 yards per game while steering a multi-faceted USM offense.

The Eagle rushing attack, meanwhile, is nothing if not well-balanced, while lead by all-league candidate Ito Smith. Ito led the team in rushing both his freshman and sophomore years, racking up a total of 1,128 yards last year, and this season having eclipsed the 100-yard mark in all four of USM’s games so far.

His 545 yards rushing is good for third in the nation, presently.

And hero Ito is amply backed up by George Payne, who was the man of the hour in the 44-35 win over Kentucky, rushing for 100 yards on 16 carries as the Golden Eagles torched the field in Lexington. He went for a season-high 116 on 14 carries in the home opener the next week and his 6.7 yards per carry is just one-tenth away from hero Ito for the team lead.

Mullens’ available receivers are legion as well, with four pass-catchers averaging greater than 20 yards per game, led by Allenzae Staggers at 44.5, and Isaiah Jones, at 51.2 yards per game.

Defensively, the leaders of USM’s “Nasty Bunch” are both defensive linemen, Dylan Bradley and Xavier Thigpen. Bradley leads the team with 26 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble in four games.

Thigpen blocked a punt on the team's first defensive possession of the 2016 season before also forcing and recovering a fumble at Kentucky. It kickstarted the Golden Eagles to what went from a 35-10 deficit to their big 44-35 win in Lexington.

The redshirt junior also leads the team with 6 1/2 tackles-for-loss (including 34 yards). That number accounts for exactly half of his total tackles on the year. He shuffled through the rain against Troy to post eight tackles (4.0 for loss).

Southern Miss registered its third second-half shutout of the year in last week’s win over UTEP, and now has outscored its opponents 58-13 on the year after the intermission. The Golden Eagles have allowed just 266 yards through the air in the last three games.

Oh, and the coaching-go-round continues in Hattiesburg with the introduction of first-year man Jay Hopson, who uncharacteristically has moved over from in-state SWAC entrant Alcorn State, where he enjoyed a successful four-year stint as head coach. During his tenure there, Hopson led the Braves to a 32-17 record and consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championships the last two seasons.

His team also captured the SBN Black College Championship in 2014.

Prior to Alcorn, Hopson worked as linebackers coach for two seasons at Michigan (2008-09) and worked as defensive coordinator at Memphis during the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, in addition to a couple of earlier short stints on the USM staff under Jeff Bower.

Here’s his coach-speak take on the upcoming Rice game:

"They've played everybody tough and they are a team that lost in overtime last week and played Baylor strong. It's a team that we understand we have to ready to play and we know they are a good football team. They're talented, the quarterback makes plays. It's conference play and you know any time you play in conference play; whether it's on the road or at home, it is going to be a 60-minute war. That's the reality of playing in conference. We have to be ready. We have our plate full and gotta be ready to go."

Take it for what it’s worth.

--P.T.H.