STARKVILLE, Miss. (WALA) - The final statistics suggest that the University of South Alabama more than held its own in its first-ever game against a Southeastern Conference opponent Saturday, as the Jaguars won the battle for time of possession, threw for 24 more yards and had only nine fewer yards of total offense.
But Mississippi State, ranked 23rd nationally entering play, made more big plays, which led to three rushing touchdowns and three field goals from Devon Bell, as the Bulldogs earned a 30-10 non-conference football victory over the Jaguars at Davis Wade Stadium.
The Bulldogs — who improved to 4-0 with their second win in as many weeks over a Sun Belt Conference opponent — got their first score on a 44-yard run, and had five completions for 20-plus yards, two 40-plus yard kickoff returns and a pair of interceptions run back for more than 40 yards to claim the first of three meetings between the two schools.
After two straight games on the road, USA — now 1-3 on the season — returns home to play host to Troy Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the program's first-ever Sun Belt contest. The game will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and be televised regionally on Comcast Sports Southeast as part of the Sun Belt Network.
"We have some things we need to work on for sure, but I saw a lot of heart on that football field tonight. You're talking about a top-23 team, and we're a new program," observed Jaguar head coach Joey Jones. "We fought our rear-ends off. I'm just proud of the team as a whole, and I told them in the locker room that I could live with that.
"We have to get better — we're a young team and have a long way to go — but I can't tell you how proud I am of them tonight."
MSU outgained USA by just nine total yards, as the Jaguars accounted for six more first downs while matching a school record running 73 plays.
In fact, the Jags held a 40-yard advantage in total offense in the first quarter — USA's defense allowed just one first down and 27 yards on 14 snaps — but the Bulldogs got on the board first early in the second period. After C.J. Bennett drove the Jags 50 yards, a 47-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left. The Bulldogs answered with a three-play, 70-yard march that saw Tyler Russell connect with Chad Bumphis for a 21-yard completion one play before LaDarius Perkins ran up the middle for a 44-yard score with 12:18 to go in the opening half.
Perkins would finish with a game-high 69 yards on 11 carries, while Russell would later score on the ground as well. The quarterback finished 13-of-27 passing for 171 yards as well, with Brandon Heavens and Chris Smith pacing the Bulldogs with three catches apiece — the latter finished with a team-best 55 yards.
The MSU lead would double less than seven minutes later, when Dak Prescott rushed for seven yards on the final two plays of an 80-yard drive; his score from two yards out made it 14-0 with five-and-a-half minutes left before the break. Devon Bell added a 42-yard field goal just over two minutes later, and he made it a 20-0 Bulldog advantage at the break with another 42-yard field goal as time expired.
Tyrell Pearson intercepted a Russell pass intended a minute before halftime, running it back 25 yards, but two snaps later Nickoe Whitley picked of a pass for the Bulldogs, which he returned 66 yards to set up Bell's second field goal.
Both of the Jaguar scoring drives came in the second half, with both moving more than 70 yards while taking at least five minutes off the clock. Ross Metheny led a Jag march that covered 71 yards in 13 plays over five minutes and a second, that culminated with a 22-yard Michel Chapuseaux field goal that opened the scoring the second half. Midway through the final period, Bennett guided USA 78 yards in 12 plays, ending the possession with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Greg Hollinger on third-and-seven.
It was the Jags' first touchdown since the season opener on Sept. 1 against Texas-San Antonio.
Bennett was 14-of-26 passing for 154 yards, with Bryant Lavender recording season-high totals of six catches for 80 yards to pace the Jag receiving corps. Jeremé Jones and T.J. Glover posted four receptions each, and Hollinger supplied 49 yards on three receptions including his first score since USA defeated Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 3 a year ago. Demetre Baker rushed for an additional 49 yards on 12 attempts to lead the Jaguar rushing attack for the fourth time in as many games.
Jones' first catch, which came on USA's initial play of the game, marked his 18th consecutive contest with a reception to break a school record he shared with Courtney Smith.
"It's special because it puts me up there with one of the best receivers [in school history], but I'm more focused on the win-loss record," Jones said of the achievement. "We took a huge step forward, playing with a nationally-ranked SEC team. We fought with them. It's disappointing we couldn't come out with the win, but we're a work in progress."
"We had a tough opponent in Mississippi State, and we knew
we would have to fight," said Metheny. "We missed some opportunities down the field in the first half. But we came back in the second half and kept fighting and hit some of them. We see where we're so close, we just need to work on finishing and keep working together, and we'll be fine."
After Chapuseaux's field goal ended the Bulldog shutout bid, Jameon Lewis returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards and Russell found Arceto Clark for a career-long 46 yard completion to set up a one-yard Russell touchdown run two minutes later to extend the MSU edge to 27-3. Bell added to the Bulldog advantage with a 31-yard field goal on the opening play of the fourth quarter for their final points of the night.
USAhad three individuals finish with a double-digit tackle total for the first time in school history to lead the defense. Enrique Williams recorded a career best 12 — which included 1½ behind the line of scrimmage — Jake Johnson posted 10 stops and B.J. Scott had 10 as well. Johnson also made 1½ tackles for loss, and Scott made a stop behind the line too.
Terrell Brigham, Clifton Crews and Pat Moore each posted six tackles, Charles Watson had five stops and forced a fumble and Pearson boke up another pass to go with his interception. Crews equalled a season high set last week at North Carolina State in the category, while Moore surpassed his from the Nicholls State contest on Sept. 8 by one.
"We did the little things right, then all of a sudden there's a big play. That's tough; we practiced all week to not give up the big play," stated Johnson. "But we just have to keep working. We're going into conference now, and those games count. The offense moved the ball, we just have to punch it in.
"We lost, but there were some good things we can take from it."
Benardrick McKinney led the Bulldogs with eight stops, and Whitley and Deontae Skinner had five as well.
And both punters averaged well over 40 yards per attempt, with the Jags' Scott Garber kicking seven times for a 43.1 average with two downed inside the MSU-20 and Baker Swedenburg averaging 47 yards on his four punts.
"We have to grow from this; we have to get better," said Jones. "We're brand new and we're trying to learn and find our way through it, but I was proud of what we did. We learned some things offensively. We moved the ball pretty good, but we threw a couple of interceptions in the red zone and we have to find a way to run the football down in the red zone — we have to get that done. Defensively, I thought we fought hard the whole game. Special teams weren't as good tonight as it has been. Our coverage wasn't that great; we gave them good field position a couple of times on kickoffs."
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