TROY – Southern Mississippi kept coming up with answers during its first-ever appearance in Troy.
With the Trojans refusing to fold and quarterback Kaleb Barker throwing for a Troy-record 504 yards, the Golden Eagles used a hot quarterback and two tremendous receivers to keep answering Troy scores.
Jack Abraham passed for 463 yards and was 28-for-36 passing. Quez Watkins, who missed the first two games, caught seven passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns and Jaylond Adams grabbed 11 passes for 180 yards in the Golden Eagles’ 47-42 victory at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
Adams even answered Troy return specialist Reggie Todd’s 69-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter with a 100-yard return for a score 13 seconds later.
“Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams are two big-time players that can play in any league in America,” Troy coach Chip Lindsey said. “They did a great job tonight getting those guys loose in our secondary.
“Obviously, we’ve got some young players back there that are learning. That was their first big experience against really quality players. Sometimes that showed. They’re going to be really good players for us, they just need some time to grow.”
USM hurt Troy on third down for much of the first half and with big plays in the passing game throughout. The Golden Eagles (2-1) had eight pass completions that covered 25 or more yards. They also were 11 of 17 on third down.
But they had to be that good. Troy’s Barker took full advantage of his weapons, too. Four receivers – Tray Eafford, Kaylon Geiger, Luke Whittemore and Khalil McClain – all topped 100 yards.
“I kept giving them balls and they kept making plays for me,” Barker said. “… Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, but I learned a lot about the guys around me – and I think the coaching staff would say the same thing.”
Barker was not ready to celebrate his record-setting night.
“I could care less about that, honestly,” the senior said. “We lost the game. That’s all I have to say about that.”
Southern Miss made it clear early this one was going all four quarters. The Golden Eagles frustrated Troy’s defense with solid play-calling and even better execution throughout much of the first half.
Abraham was nearly perfect in the first two quarters, completing 18 of 19 passes for 234 yards.
Troy went three-and-out to start the game and the visitors turned their first possession into points. On their second offensive snap, a momentary jolt of energy surged through the Troy defense – which was quashed when a replay review overturned Carlton Martial’s apparent touchdown on a 16-yard fumble return.
Southern Miss took full advantage of the second life on its opening drive and set the tone with a 17-play, 93-yard drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock in the first quarter.
Abraham converted on third down four times on the march – but the longest of those was a third-and-5. Jordan Mitchell caught that one over the middle for seven yards and a first down at the Troy 29. The quarterback finished the drive himself with a quarterback draw that went for a 5-yard touchdown run.
Troy again went three-and-out and the Golden Eagles again scored. Abraham threw a strike to Adams for 48 yards and a first down at the Troy 12. Kevin Perkins gained nine yards on second down that took the ball to the 1. Steven Anderson scored from there and the Golden Eagles led 14-0 with 2:04 left in the first quarter.
The Trojans responded quickly. Consecutive passes from Barker to Whittemore for 13 and 16 yards moved the ball to the Troy 43. On the next play, Barker hit Geiger in stride on a deep slant for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Troy gave up two more third-down conversions to the Eagles before Martial tackled Adams after a pop pass for a 4-yard loss on third-and-3. Zac Everett then punted the Trojans down to their 3-yard line.
It didn’t matter. Troy came off the goal line on a 16-yard completion from Barker to McClain. He later threw another slant to Geiger for 27 yards to the USM 10. The Eagles drew a pass interference penalty trying to guard Reggie Todd in the end zone. On first and goal, DK Billingsley crashed into the end zone and tied the game – completing a seven-play, 97-yard drive – at 14-all with 7:09 left in the half.
Unfortunately, Preseason Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year B.J. Smith went down with an injury on that scoring drive. He was hurt making a leaping, twisting attempt to catch a high throw from Barker on a gadget play along the Troy sideline. He limped to the Troy medical tent and did not return.
“I don’t know for sure yet. It didn’t look good,” Lindsey said when asked about Smith’s status. “Hopefully I’ll have something for you early in the week.”
Southern Miss wasn’t content to leave it there when an exchange of punts gave the Eagles the ball back on their 28 with 1:03 remaining in the second quarter. Consecutive completions from Abraham to Watkins for 40 and 18 yards put the ball on the Troy 16.
That set up Andrew Stein’s 26-yard field goal as time expired in the half.
The Golden Eagles threatened immediately early in the third quarter. A 38-yard pass by Abraham failed to produce points, however.
Troy took advantage on its first drive of the third. Barker threw to Todd for 17 yards to the Troy 45, to Eafford for 30 and went back to Eafford for a 25-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone. It gave the Trojans their first lead of the game at 21-17.
Southern Miss answered with Stein’s 39-yard field that made it a one-point game at 21-20.
Troy’s Tyler Sumpter missed a 32-yarder with 3:46 left in the third.
Those points looked bigger when USM’s Abraham hit Watkins for 26 yards and Adams for 33 to the Troy 17. On third-and-12 from the 19, Abraham emptied his backfield and threw a shallow crossing route to Watkins, who was wide open and scored easily.
The two-point play failed, leaving USM ahead 26-21 with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
Southern Miss added to that cushion early in the fourth. A pass interference penalty that Troy dispute put the ball on the USM 49.
Todd then ignited the crowd of 27,108 when it needed a lift. He returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards for a touchdown and it was 33-28 with 11:28 remaining.
Before the Sound of the South had stopped playing, Adams took Troy’s kickoff 100 yards up the right sideline to rebuild the lead to 40-28 with 11:15 left.
Back came the Trojans. Two plays after a pass interference penalty nullified a pick-six by the Eagles, Barker hit McClain, who kept a toe inbounds in the near right corner of the end zone on a 34-yard touchdown pass threaded between two USM defenders.
It was 40-35 with 8:53 on the clock.
The Golden Eagles had another big play in them. Facing third-and-9 from the 36, Abraham hit Watkins on a deep slant and he was three yards clear of Troy’s Jaquez Dunmore. Watkins won the race to the end zone on the 64-yard TD pass and it was 47-35 with 7:10 to play.
Troy still had bullets in the chamber. Barker led a furious seven-play, 77-yard march to the end zone. His 35-yard TD pass to McClain in the right corner of the end zone was threaded between two USM defenders and came with 2:51 left.
It made it 47-42, but Jack Martin’s onside kick was recovered by USM’s Tim Jones. The Golden Eagles ran off the last 2:48.