Contributed by: LA Tech Athletic Communications
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – On a day that saw Jaylon Ferguson record two more sacks moving closer to the NCAA career record, Louisiana Tech’s offensive struggles in the red zone proved costly Saturday as Southern Miss defeated the Bulldogs 21-20 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Tech (7-4, 5-2) seemed to be in control of the game all day, but miscues in all three phases of the game allowed the Golden Eagles (5-5, 4-3) to stay within striking distance. It ultimately cost the Bulldogs.
“We moved the ball against a team that is one of better defenses in the league,” said LA Tech head coach Skip Holtz. “I thought the passing game did some good things. The negative was the lack of a big play. We had a number of opportunities down the field and couldn’t take advantage of them.
“Our defense competed hard. Our offense competed hard. The special teams competed hard. It’s unfortunate we came up a point short. We lost this game in double overtime a year ago. We had some calls that went against us tonight. It’s hard to lose. It’s hard to lose when your team competes as hard as we did. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it done tonight.”
The highlight of the game turned out to be Ferguson, who sacked USM quarterback Jack Smith twice to move his career total to 42 – just two shy of the NCAA record of 44 by Terrell Suggs. Ferguson’s season total is 14.5, tying his own LA Tech single season record set in 2016.
After scoring touchdowns in its first two trips inside the USM 20-yard line in the first half – a 5-yard TD pass from J’Mar Smith to Adrian Hardy and a 6-yard run by Kam McKnight – the Bulldogs moved inside the Golden Eagles 10-yard line three more times in the game. But Tech only came away with two fields (and a missed 29-yard FG).
The two teams were tied 14-14 late in the second half when the Bulldogs drove down to the USM six-yard line. But on first and goal from the six, three straight incomplete passes forced a Bailey Hale FG on the final play of the second quarter, giving Tech a 17-14 halftime advantage.
The Bulldogs had an opportunity to add to its lead in the third quarter. After forcing USM to punt on its first possession of the second half, Tech used a 16-play drive that took 8:44 off the clock before stalling once again inside the USM red zone. Hale’s 29-yard field goal attempt was pushed wide right, allowing USM to keep the deficit at three points. Tech completed just 1-of-7 passes in the game inside the USM 15-yard line.
Coming up empty on the possession was huge in the outcome of the game.
Tech’s defense played well for most of the game. It recovered a Jack Abraham fumble late in the third quarter inside USM territory, the only turnover of the game by either team.
Following the turnover, the Bulldog offense moved the football until it got within the Golden Eagles 10-yard line. After stalling on the USM six-yard line, Hale came on and booted through a 23-yard field goal to up the Tech advantage to 20-14 with 13:40 to play in the game.
After holding USM to only 49 yards of total offense on its last four possessions, the Bulldog defense was asked to come up with another stop leading by six. USM took over on it 15-yard line and proceeded to march 85 yards on 14 plays, taking 7:31 off the clock. The Golden Eagles capped the drive on a six-yard TD run by Steven Anderson. The extra point gave USM a 21-20 advantage.
On Tech’s next drive, the Bulldogs moved passed midfield on a 33-yard completion to Alfred Smith. However, three straight incompletions from the USM 46-yard line forced a Bulldog punt with just under 4 minutes to play.
USM was able to pick up a pair of first downs, one on a personal foul call on a late hit out of bounds by Ferguson and another on a 12-yard completion from Abraham to Tim Jones on a third down and five-play, as the Golden Eagles ran out the clock.
“We came in and wanted to have balance,” said Holtz. “We wanted to run ball. But unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it. I thought we passed protected very well. I thought from a run blocking stand point we were not the best. They do a good job with their run defense. We couldn’t take advantage of the deep ball opportunities. We had some guys wide open. We just couldn’t take advantage. We had opportunities to win this game. We had some opportunities and couldn’t capitalize on them.”
Smith completed 27-of-43 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown despite a number of drops by Bulldog receivers. Hardy caught 11 passes for 110 yards and one score.
The Bulldogs run game was held in check, recording only 68 yards on 23 carries led by Israel Tucker with 24 yards on nine carries.
Abraham completed 24-of-29 passes for 195 yards and one score.
Tech wraps up its regular season Saturday when it hosts WKU at 11 a.m. at Joe Aillet Stadium.