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Southern Miss surges past Alcorn with big second half

HATTIESBURG — The 2019 season opener started as well as it could have for Southern Miss. The final result was exactly what it wanted. Everything in between was good enough to get the job done.

Jack Abraham threw for 293 yards and one touchdown and ran for another score, and Jaylond Adams returned two kicks for touchdowns as the Golden Eagles beat Alcorn State 38-10 on Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium.

Southern Miss scored on four consecutive possessions from late in the second quarter to the end of the third to gain some separation, and won its season opener for the third time in four years.

Southern Miss blew open a close game by scoring 25 points in the second half, largely thanks to some big plays. Adams returned a punt for a touchdown — to go along with one on the opening kickoff — and Abraham threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to Neil McLaurin when the Alcorn defensive back fell down. A fumble deep in Alcorn territory led to a field goal.

“I knew it would be a hard-fought, tough game. Alcorn’s a football team where you watch them on film and I really was extremely impressed with,” said Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson, who spent four seasons as Alcorn’s head coach from 2012 to 2015. “We played really good in our special teams unit. I thought we had a pretty OK game defensively. I think offensively we had some sputtering in the first half and picked it up a little bit there in the second half. We’re in search each and every week of playing that complete game. We know we’ve got some work to do and have to get ready to go work.”

Alcorn held its own defensively, but struggled to get its own offense in gear against Southern Miss’ speedy defense. The Braves finished with 219 yards of total offense, including just 75 rushing yards.

All-Southwestern Athletic Conference running back De’Shawn Waller carried the ball 16 times for 51 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Noah Johnson completed 17 of 31 passes for 143 yards, with one interception, and was sacked four times.

“We didn’t play well. We made special teams mistakes, we didn’t execute on offense, we didn’t block anybody, we didn’t pass protect. All across the board we were bad,” Alcorn head coach Fred McNair said. “I thought the defense played well in the first half, and then the second half we just made too many mistakes. Against a good football team you can’t make those mistakes. We did, and we couldn’t overcome it.”

The Braves were also 6-of-16 on third down conversions. Southern Miss was 7-of-13, but four of its conversions came during a pair of third-quarter touchdown drives. Both touchdowns on those drives were scored on third-down plays.

“It’s a big issue. That’s something you talk about all the time as coaches is getting off the field on third down, and we didn’t do that,” McNair said. “Any time you don’t get off the field on third down, and any time you don’t convert third downs it’s going to create problems.”

The game — and season — started with a bang for Southern Miss.

Adams fielded the opening kickoff at his own 11-yard line, squeezed through the first pack of defenders and hit a seam up the middle before going down the right sideline for an 89-yard touchdown.

It was USM’s first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2015, and he wasn’t done. Early in the fourth quarter, Adams blasted right up the middle of the field for an 80-yard punt return touchdown that gave the Golden Eagles a 35-10 lead and capped their second-half surge.

“(Hopson) put a big emphasis on special teams. Pretty much coming into the game, that’s all we talked about,” Adams said. “Special teams were going to be a difference-maker in this ballgame. We bought in as a team and got the job done.”

Adams’ kickoff return touchdown had The Rock rocking, but Southern Miss spent most of the first half missing opportunities to blow the game open. An 11-play drive on its first offensive possession stalled inside the 5 and ended with a 20-yard field goal by Andrew Stein.

Later, a 54-yard completion from Abraham to Jordan Mitchell gave the Golden Eagles the ball inside the 10 with under a minute left in the first half. Three plays couldn’t push the ball across the goal line and they again settled for a short field goal by Stein, this time from 19 yards, for a 13-0 lead at halftime.

Alcorn tightened things up in the third quarter. Waller burst up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown to cap an 11-play scoring drive on the first possession, cutting the deficit to 13-7.

After that, Southern Miss finally got rolling and never looked back.

On third-and-17 from the USM 45-yard line, Abraham chucked a deep ball down the right side for McLaurin. Alcorn defensive back Allen Bruce got tangled up with McLaurin and fell down, leaving the receiver wide open at the 15-yard line. McLaurin caught the ball and cruised into the end zone.

Stein took a direct snap on the PAT try and ran into the end zone for a two-point conversion and a 21-7 lead.

“It was third and long, we were just trying to take a shot,” said Abraham, who was 18-of-28 for 293 yards. “I knew Neil was going to beat him and I knew he was going to give me a chance to throw it up there and let him make a play. He made a great play on the ball.”

Alcorn got some points back on its next possession with a 44-yard field goal by Corey McCullough, but Southern Miss put the game on ice soon after.

Abraham completed two third-down passes on a 12-play scoring drive, then finished it with his legs with a 14-yard touchdown run that tied a career long.

Alcorn punted on its next possession and Adams went straight up the middle for his 80-yard touchdown.

Suddenly, a competitive and occasionally frustrating game for Southern Miss was a 35-10 blowout. Stein added a 24-yard field goal with 10:52 left in the fourth quarter to finish the scoring.

Southern Miss had 6 rushing yards in the first half, and 90 in the second half.

“We couldn’t get into a rhythm, and then once the third quarter came around we started really putting some drives together,” Abraham said. “I have the utmost confidence in all of those guys up front. I feel like at the end of the third quarter, start of the fourth we started to get in that good groove.”