LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Southern Mississippi players spread out toward Commonwealth Stadium’s west end zone to celebrate one of the program’s wildest victories with their happy fans.
A huge second-quarter deficit made winning seem unlikely before the Golden Eagles responded with near-perfect performances on both sides of the ball.
Nick Mullens ran for two 1-yard touchdowns — including the go-ahead score late in the third quarter — and passed for two TDs as Southern Miss scored 34 unanswered points to upset Kentucky 44-35 in its season opener on Saturday night.
The Golden Eagles’ web site said their comeback was the largest since at least 2009, when they erased a 17-point deficit to beat Virginia.
“I’m really proud of just the fight and determination that our players showed,” Golden Eagles coach Jay Hopson said after winning his debut. “They just kept digging, kept fighting and it was a great win.”
Kentucky appeared in control with a 35-10 second quarter lead as Drew Barker threw TD passes of 72, 43, 9 and 53 yards on drives totaling 13 plays. Jojo Kemp’s 7-yard TD run seemed to provide a safe cushion that the Wildcats’ defense complemented with three interceptions of Mullens.
Neither Mullens nor the Golden Eagles quarterback panicked as he answered Kentucky’s final score with a 71-yard TD pass to Isaiah Jones with 26 seconds left before halftime. Mullens then sandwiched 1-yard TD runs around an 18-yard scoring pass to Julian Allen, followed by two Parker Schaunfield field goals.
“My mindset didn’t really change,” said Mullens, who completed 18 of 28 passes for 258 yards. “I just had to relax, focus and make the next play.”
Southern Miss’ running backs did their part to make the comeback happen.
Ito Smith contributed 173 yards rushing and an 8-yard touchdown on 36 carries, while George Payne added 100 on 16 carries. Payne missed last season with an injury but he looked just fine on one fourth-quarter play in which he lost a yard but broke several tackles.
That play summed Kentucky’s frustrating second half in which it was outgained 261-22 and was worn down by Southern Miss.
Barker finished 15 of 24 passing for 323 yards, but had just 36 yards after halftime and was sacked four times.
SOUTHERN MISS: The Golden Eagles stuck with the game despite being outscored 35-3 after scoring on their first drive, rebounding with the trio of Mullens, Smith and Payne. Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson got the final word against his former team as Southern Miss outgained Kentucky 520-409 and dominated the final 32 minutes. “I think he’s certainly proud of it,” Mullens said about Dawson. “You guys (media) can do with that situation what you want to, but it was about beating Kentucky.” The victory ended a 13-game losing streak to Southeastern Conference schools dating back to 2000.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats still have time to reach the six-win plateau for bowl eligibility. But they blew a huge lead and opportunity in a game they had to win toward that end, and an 0-2 start is looming with a trip to No. 25 Florida looming. Kentucky blew a 21-point lead in a 38-24 loss to Louisville in last season’s finale. “That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better,” coach Mark Stoops said. “And I’ll tell you this, we’ll play better.”
SOUTHERN MISS: The Golden Eagles aim to follow up their big win when they host FCS Savannah State next weekend.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats visit No. 25 Florida next Saturday in hopes of ending a 29-game losing streak to the Gators — not to mention, annual media questions about it. Kentucky has come close the past two years and aims to finally seal the deal in the nationally televised game at The Swamp.