After building a 16-0 lead midway through the second quarter, the University of South Alabama football team looked like it might cruise to victory at Kent State.
But the Golden Flashes battled back, setting up a chance to tie the contest eight minutes with remaining in the fourth quarter, before the Jaguars would go on to claim a 23-13 non-conference win in their season debut Saturday at Dix Stadium.
"This is a big win for us on the road. We came up here last time and didn't play well, but we came out and really played well early in the game," stated Jag head coach Joey Jones. "The thing I am most proud of is we finished the game. In our first game last year we let someone drive and score, and now look at the difference — just that mentality of we're not going to get beat late in the game. I'm so proud of the defense for stopping them, and proud of the offense for driving down and scoring late in the game.
"My hat's off to our players who have really bought in to what we're doing. We have some things we can work on, and that's the thing about football — you always have things you can work on."
The Jaguars (1-0) return to Mobile to play host to Mississippi State in their home opener Saturday. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. with the match-up set to be televised nationally on ESPNews.
Not only would the USA defense limit its third opponent in the last four outings to less than 300 yards of offense dating back to the end of the 2013 campaign after holding KSU (0-2) to 277 on 68 plays, the unit provided the Jags with their first points of season on a safety with just under eight minutes to go in the opening quarter when Colin Reardon was called for intentional grounding in the end zone after being pressured by Davin Hawkins.
The play was set up by a 40-yard Brandon McKee punt that went out of bounds at the KSU five-yard line.
And once Anthony Melchiori's 32-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left leaving the Jaguars up by three, 16-13, midway through the final period the USA defense would protect the lead by stopping two final Golden Flash drives. Kent State took over at its own 10-yard line with six minutes remaining in the contest, however after a 13-yard completion from Reardon to Anthony Meray out of the backfield Jimmie Gipson III sacked Reardon for a loss of 10 yards. Gipson III hurried Reardon again on third-and-15, forcing an incompletion and a punt.
The Jaguars were able to pick up a pair of first downs from Jay Jones to bleed the clock, with the senior scoring from 23 yards out on third-and-six for the final points of the game. The Flashes had the ball one last time with one minute and 12 seconds on the clock after the ensuing kickoff, but Montell Garner made a diving interception of a Reardon pass at the KSU-36 to end the contest.
Hawkins — making his first career start — led the Jaguar defense with nine stops and two passes broken up. Roman Buchanan, Maleki Harris, Akeem Lewis and Theo Rich were credited with four stops apiece, Terrell Brigham broke up three passes and forced a fumble, and in addition to both his tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage Gipson III had three quarterback hurries.
"We came out on that first drive with so much energy and intensity when Montell jumped the slant route, we knew we could control the game," Hawkins observed. "That is the mindset we take. We want to come out and show who we are every single play; we don't want to take a play off and that just fuels our intensity. We played assignment football. No one tried to do too much, and I think that is why everything jelled so smoothly.
"Coach [Travis] Pearson has a great game plan, and if you do your job then everything will take care of itself."
Follwing the safety, T.J. Glover returned the ensuing free kick 23 yards and the Jags took over on their own 46-yard line. Brandon Bridge picked up a first down with a gain of eight on third-and-six, moving the chains again on the next play when he found Jeremé Jones crossing the middle for a 14-yard catch. USA added first downs with receptions of eight yards by Braedon Bowman and 14 by Claude Garrett, with the latter moving the Jaguars to the KSU-4.
The Golden Flashes' Nate Holley appeared to intercept a ball that was deflected in the end zone, but pass interference was called on the play. Two snaps later, Bridge connected with Shavarez Smith for a one-yard score and 9-0 advantage with 2:46 to go in the first period; it was the fourth time in the last five games dating back to last season that Smith has recorded a touchdown reception.
KSU would record just 26 yards on 13 plays over the first 15 minutes.
With just over eight minutes left in the opening half USA moved ahead 16-0 on a one-yard Jay Jones scoring run that came one play after Marvin Shinn caught a 58-yard pass from Bridge down the left sideline.
Jones posted his third straight 100-yard effort dating back to last year, leading all players with 102 yards and two scores on 21 carries. Kendall Houston added 13 rushes for 46 yards and Bridge ran for 41 as well as USA finished with 186 yards on the ground and 347 overall.
Bridge was 15-of-25 passing for 161 yards, with Jeremé Jones, Smith and Danny Woodson II catching three passes each to pace the receiving corps.
"I'm proud that we got the win. It was a great team effort; the offense came out rolling, and the defense did a heck of a job," Bridge explained. "I'm really proud of them [the offensive line]. Before we started that last drive, I told the guys that we had to score. We had a couple of guys go down, but we have a lot of depth at each position this year. Those guys came in and did a heck of a job and gave Jay some big holes to run through."
McKee punted a school game-record 10 times, recording a 42.9-yard average while having two kicks downed inside the Golden Flashes' 20-yard line.
Kent State got on the board a minute-and-a-half before the intermission, moving 69 yards — after gaining 28 on its first six possessions — in 13 plays and just over six minutes before Reardon hit Nick Holley in the left flat for an eight-yard touchdown pass; the score was 16-6 at the break after Brigham stopped Holley on the two-point conversion.
After a scoreless third quarter, KSU closed the gap to 16-13 on the first play of the final period as Reardon found Casey Pierce for a 44-yard touchdown. On the Golden Flashes' next possession, they drove another 61 yards in 11 plays but after Melchiori's field goal missed the Golden Flashes managed eight yards on six plays the rest of the way.
Reardon accounted for 215 yards of total offense, with 213 coming through the air after completing 17-of-40 attempts. Pierce led all players with four catches for 80 yards and Chris Humphrey added four receptions as well, while Ernest Calhoun and Holley also caught three balls. KSU managed only 64 yards on 28 carries, though, with Holley accounting for 47 of those on 14 rushes.
Nate Holley matched Hawkins for game-high honors with nine total stops, with Matt Dellinger and Terence Waugh adding eight apiece and both Jordan Italiano and Nate Terhune credited with seven each. Jontey Byrd had four solo tackles, with two of those providing a loss of 10 yards.
It's the first time since beginning the transition to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level that the Jaguars have opened the season with a win. It was also the second straight year that USA has defeated the Golden Flashes, taking a 2-1 series advantage.