By The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Southern Mississippi seemed intent on helping Rice stay close for the majority of Saturday’s game. When the Golden Eagles finally decided to be less charitable, things got ugly in a hurry.
Austin Davis threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns, Kendrick Hardy rushed for 172 yards and Southern Miss scored four unanswered touchdowns in the second half to turn a tight game into a 48-24 rout over Rice at Roberts Stadium.
Southern Miss (4-1, 1-1 Conference USA) gained a school-record 654 total yards, including 370 on the ground, but four turnovers kept Rice (1-3, 0-1) in the game. The Owls scored twice on fumble recoveries, including a 96-yard return by Xavier Webb that briefly gave Rice a 24-20 lead early in the third quarter.
“If you don’t have something in your chest or that tough makeup, you might lay down after that,” Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. “Not this bunch, they are going to keep fighting.”
The Owls simply couldn’t stop Southern Miss’ offense. The Golden Eagles kept churning away with big gains on the ground, even as Hardy and backup Jamal Woodyard left the game with injuries.
Kelvin Bolden caught nine passes for 132 yards and a touchdown for Southern Miss while Ryan Balentine caught seven for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
Though Southern Miss dominated on the ground, it remains to be seen how many running backs the Golden Eagles will have next weekend when they travel to Navy.
Hardy limped off the field and into the locker room during the third quarter while Woodyard didn’t return after the first quarter. Even third-string running back Jeremy Hester left the game late after an apparent injury. By the end of the night, 5-foot-9, 168-pound Tracy Lampley was carrying the load.
Against Rice, it really didn’t matter who was doing the running. Fifth-string running back Bruce Johnson even ripped off a 25-yard run as the clock was winding down. The Golden Eagles averaged 7.3 yards per rushing attempt.
“The way we ran it is a huge credit to our offensive line,” Davis said. “We were able to run the ball and control the clock and that was huge. Running backs going down is part of football, you just have to know that going into the season. You’re going to get down to your third and sometimes fourth running back.”
Rice struggled from the first play, when Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins darted through the defensive line and slammed running back Sam McGuffie to the turf for an 8-yard loss. The rest of the night was the same for the Owls, who failed to generate much offense unless Southern Miss gift-wrapped a turnover.
Taylor McHargue completed 14 of 28 passes for 140 yards and one touchdown. Backup Nick Fanuzzi was 7 of 13 for 56 yards. Rice managed just 30 rushing yards while Southern Miss made nine tackles for a loss that resulted in a total loss of 42 yards.
“You always want to be nasty on defense,” Fedora said. “You want to be physical, and we want to have that blue collar, hit-you-in-the-mouth attitude. That’s what we want people to think when they think Southern Miss football.”
Both teams alternated big plays with big mistakes, resulting in wild swings in momentum in the first half.
Rice led 14-13 after a first quarter that featured four touchdowns in the last 5 minutes — including two in the final 5 seconds.
Southern Miss looked like it might blow Rice right off the field at first, taking a 13-0 lead after Hardy’s 47-yard touchdown run and Balentine’s 46-yard touchdown catch.
The Owls recovered in a hurry. McHargue hit Vance McDonald for a 2-yard touchdown with 5 seconds remaining in the quarter, and then the Owls scored again as time expired after Southern Miss fumbled the kickoff. Michael Kutzler recovered and ran it back 17 yards for the touchdown and 14-13 lead.
Southern Miss took a 20-17 lead into halftime after cornerback Marquese Wheaton recovered a fumble and ran 75 yards for the touchdown. It was one of many mistakes that frustrated Rice coach David Bailiff.
“We’re a pretty good football team,” Bailiff said. “We have to play like who we are. We have to make more plays. We just have to take care of the football better … You don’t beat a Southern Miss making mistakes like we did.”