Photo | Mike Kittrell
The excitement that had been building for the South Alabama football program from spring practice, summer workouts and into fall drills culminated in a strong, 31-7 victory over Southern Miss Saturday night at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
An announced crowd of more than 20,000 fans watched and cheered as the Jaguars opened the Kane Wommack Era with a convincing win over the Golden Eagles in the first game at the Jags’ 25,000-seat on-campus stadium in which full capacity was allowed.
Much had been said and written about Wommack and his new staff, as well as several new players added to the Jags’ roster. But how would they fare on the field? Saturday night, in the first of the team’s 12 scheduled regular-season games, the results were positive.
“When you think about a game like that, there are so many unknowns walking into the game in the first place,” Wommack said afterward. “From a game-plan standpoint offensively, we kind of had to feel (Southern Miss) out and be a little bit more conservative to see what it was that they were going to do (defensively).
“Defensively, I thought we had a good start to the first series and then they had the drive on the next series that we did a great job of adjusting to some of the runs that they had. I think some of the runs that they do are challenging schematically, and I thought our guys did a good job against them physically. We adjusted well schematically as the game went on and took away their top runs.”
As to his first game as the Jags’ head coach — at 34, he is the youngest head coach in Division 1 football — Wommack said he was pleased with the results, but noted there is more work to do.
“I didn’t think this was a convincing win nor was it the standard of what we’re trying to accomplish here in this program,” he said. “We play in the Sun Belt Conference and it’s a very good league. We’re going to see some very good teams moving forward. When you think about the urgency that we have to have as a program and where we need to go, we still have work to do. This was a first win with a lot of good things to draw upon. Everyone in our building can enjoy wins, but you have to have an urgency to get this program better because that was not a convincing win in my mind.”
Quarterback Jake Bentley, who was 17 of 22 for 269 yards, threw for a pair of touchdowns and ran for another in directing the Jags’ offensive efforts. Wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, a preseason All-America candidate, picked up where he left off last season, hauling in five passes for 168 yards. He came up just short of scoring a touchdown twice on big plays.
Defensively, South Alabama’s “Swarm D” had good success against the Golden Eagles, coming up with four turnovers, including a Devyn Flenord interception return of 48 yards for a touchdown in the waning seconds of the game. Keith Gallmon had seven tackles, followed by Shawn Jennings with six stops. The Jags sacked USM quarterback Trey Lowe III four times, with Jennings, Christian Bell and Carlos Johnson getting solo sacks and Quentin Wilfawn and Jamall Hickbottom combining on a sack. Shawn Steele II had an interception, Devin Rockette and Wy’Kevious Thomas recovered fumbles and Yam Banks forced two fumbles.
“It was huge, and coach talked in the locker room about just finding a way to win,” Bentley said. “It’s a lot easier to get better off of a win than a loss. We’ll go back and watch the film, and I think a lot of us are going to realize that there is so much left on the field. And that’s not trying to be negative; it’s really a positive thing about how good we can be. The guys were excited and fought hard, and I’m just proud of the whole team.”
Cornerback Darrell Luter said, “It (the win) most definitely (means a lot to me). I knew coming out we had a great mindset. We had to play physical, play aggressive, play fast, and that’s exactly what we did.”
USM opened the scoring in the first period on a 1-yard run by Lowe. South Alabama responded with 31 unanswered points. Bentley tossed a 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Trent Tyre, then after a turnover the Jags took the lead for good on a 5-yard scoring pass from Bentley to running back Kareem Walker at the 10:27 mark of the second period and that’s where the score stood at halftime.
The Jags stormed out of the gate in the second half, scoring on their first possession when Bentley found the end zone on a quarterback sneak. Diego Guajardo connected on a 48-yard field goal try later in the third period and Flenord closed out the scoring with his Pick Six.
South Alabama travels to Ohio to face Bowling Green next Saturday at 3 p.m. CDT. The Jags’ next home game is set for Sept. 18 at Hancock Whitney Stadium against Alcorn State. Kickoff for that game is 7 p.m.
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