HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - “Military Appreciation Day” Saturday at M.M. Roberts Stadium turned into a “Turn Back the Clock” afternoon.”
The University of Southern Mississippi’s defense lived up to its “Nasty Bunch” moniker, coming up with four turnovers and limiting Marshall University to 249 yards total offense as the Golden Eagles held off the Thundering Herd 26-24 before an announced 20,375.
“Our defense battled,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “I thought the guys did a great job swarming the ball and creating turnovers. It was a good team win.”
USM (4-4, 3-2 Conference USA) converted three of the takeaways into 17 points, including a scoop-and-score fumble return by Darian Yancey as the Golden Eagles scored two touchdowns in a 15-second span near the end of the first half.
“It’s big anytime you turn the ball over and give them points,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “Our defense made a couple tough plays in the second half and played pretty well. Offensively, we just couldn’t get it done.”
USM stifled the Herd’s ground game, with Marshall netting just 31 yards rushing, the fewest rushing yards the Golden Eagles had allowed this season.
“Our defense takes a lot of pride in stopping the run and its pass capability,” Hopson said. “I’ve been a defensive coach forever, and you can’t just stop one side. You have to stop both.”
The Herd (5-3, 3-2) clamped down on a Golden Eagle offense that saw freshman quarterback Tate Whatley make his first career start in place of sophomore Jack Abraham, who had been banged up last week at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
The good: Whatley completed 16-of-25 passes for a touchdown with no interceptions and led the Golden Eagles in rushing for a second consecutive game.
The bad: USM only managed 222 yards total offense, including 134 yards passing, and Whatley’s 40 yards rushing came on 25 attempts.
Saturday’s statistics seemed incompatible at times.
The Golden Eagles held the ball for more than 38 minutes despite converting only 3-of-16 third-down opportunities (18.8 percent). Coupled with 1-of-3 conversions on fourth downs, USM converted 4-of-19 opportunities (21.1 percent).
And yet, USM managed just enough offense and bowed up with enough defense to pick up its third consecutive home win.
The Golden Eagles opened the game with a 12-play, 39 yard drive that ate 7 minutes, 35 seconds, off the clock to take a 3-0 lead on Parker Shaunfield’s 45-yard field goal.
After a 29-yard punt set up Marshall at the Golden Eagles’ 29-yard line, USM was able to limit the Herd to a 24-yard field goal by Justin Rohrwasser.
The Herd took its only lead of the game when a botched punt snap wound up as a fumble at USM’s 8-yard line. Marshall Brenden Knox picked up the loose ball and took it into the end zone for a 10-3 lead.
Momentum mounted for Marshall when Whatley fumbled during a delayed draw, with Marshall taking over at the USM 36-yard line.
But two plays later, Marshall starting quarterback Alex Thomson was intercepted at the 5-yard line by USM cornerback Ty Williams, who returned his second pick of the year 49 yards to the Marshall 46.
A 29-yard gain on reverse by receiver DeMichael Harris brought the ball to the Marshall 17, and four plays later, Whatley found Quez Watkins on a fade route in the back corner of the end zone to tie the game just 48 seconds before halftime.
It was Watkins’ eight TD catch of the season, but his first in three games.
Marshall subbed in Isaiah Green at quarterback in place of Thomson for what most assumed would be the first half’s final series.
But “most” did not include USM defensive ends Jacques Turner and Yancey.
On first down, Turner caught Green from behind as he tried to shift to his right to avoid pressure, knocking out the, collecting a 10-yard sack and knocking the ball free. Yancey, who was coming off the other edge, picked up the ball and bee-lined his way to his first career touchdown.
It was USM’s second touchdown in a 15-second span and left the Golden Eagles ahead 17-10 at halftime.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to get it,” Yancey said. “It was a scoop-and-score, just like any drill in practice.”
USM failed to convert a fourth-and-1 on its first possession of the second half, and Marshall needed just four plays to tie the score after taking over at its 34-yard line. Green’s 53-yard completion to Marcel Williams set up a 2-yard scoring run by Anthony Anderson.
But on Marshall’s next possession, safety Ky’el Hemby came up with his third interception of the year to set up a go-ahead, 23-yard field goal by Shaunfield for a 20-17 lead.
Green drove Marshall down to the USM 23, but an illegal block shoved the Herd back 10 yards and the Golden Eagles eventually forced a pooch punt from Green.
USM then went 94 yards to go up 26-17. Two pass interference calls, including one on a fake field goal, set up Whatley’s 1-yard scoring run with 7:13 to play.
“I really appreciate my team and how they supported me,” Whatley said. “The o-line blocked their tails off and the defense played great.”
Linebacker Racheem Boothe recovered a fumble caused by defensive back Darius Kennedy at the USM 19 to thwart another Marshall threat.
The Herd scored with 1:11 to play on Green’s 15-yard slant pass to Artie Hardy, but the Golden Eagles recovered the on-side kick to preserve the win.
USM will travel to the University of Alabama-Birmingham at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.