The game didn’t exactly go as most expected, for any number of reasons. Pick an exciting play, any one of the wonderful, horrible or just odd moments of entertainment, and few saw them coming in the seconds before.
But at least one of the moments, while a surprise to the record crowd watching Southern Mississippi host Mississippi State, was completely, absolutely expected by the 5’8” running back who made the electric play.
5:39, first quarter: USM led 3-0 while MSU had only held the ball for a total of one minute and one second, spending the majority of the quarter watching the Golden Eagles move the ball with varying levels of success. The Bulldogs had already turned the ball over twice with first quarter barely halfway through. In nine minutes and 28 seconds of game play, MSU only had 67 yards of offense and nothing to show for it.
5:26, first quarter: MSU led 7-3, totaled 33 more yards in one play than it had the previous nine minutes combined and silenced the black and gold sections of the home crowd, electrifying the maroon and white-clad visitors.
In 13 seconds, Brandon Holloway went from three yards deep in his own endzone with 21 fully-padded players in front of him, to standing alone in the opposite endzone with 11 Golden Eagles and the majority of a miserable first quarter behind him.
And he knew it was going to happen before he even caught the kickoff.
“Me and [fellow kick returner] Gabe Myles talked about it the whole week,” the junior running back told reporters after MSU won 34-16. “We said we were going to return a kick for a touchdown and we said it was going to be the first one.”
Right on both counts.
That wasn’t all Holloway contributed, though. The speedy former track star totaled 151 all-purpose yards on the game, leading all running backs with 51 yards on seven carries, a 7.3 yards-per-rush average. Alongside him, fellow junior running back Ashton Shumpert served as the thump to Holloway’s flash, rushing eight times for 46 yards and catching four passes for 26 yards.
Holloway said the pair has potential to be very successful together, and his head coach Dan Mullen agrees.
“Shumpert and [Holloway] – we run the same play and it’s two different plays,” Mullen said. “One guy has power to pound you, and the other guy all the sudden is going to hit a crack and be gone in the open field. I think they complement each other really well.”
Of course, those two didn’t win the game by themselves. In fact, while Holloway’s 13-ish second run gave MSU the lead, his team didn’t keep it. Not yet, anyway.
The biggest moment, according to those who were a part of it, came over a quarter later when USM had advanced to within mere feet of MSU’s endzone near the end of the first half.
On a wacky reverse, throwback, downfield pass (“They threw everything at us,” Mullen said), USM advanced 44 yards to MSU’s three-yard line. The Golden Eagles were one good play from re-taking the lead over their SEC foe, if they could get past a defensive line in its first game without three of last season’s starters.
First and goal, rush up the middle for one yard, stopped by linebackers Zach Jackson and Richie Brown. Second and goal, same result, this time stopped by defensive linemen Nelson Adams and Chris Jones. Third and goal, stuffed for no gain by Jones.
Fourth and goal, Southern decided to go for it, needing only one yard. Before the snap, junior tackle Nick James stood straight up beating his chest with both arms. Next to him, Jones positioned himself in front of the center. Safeties and linebackers squeezed up as close to the goal line as they could, peeking over the line of scrimmage and into the backfield. The ball was snapped, MSU’s line lurched forward and USM’s line collapsed as defensive end A.J. Jefferson was credited as the first of many to get his hands on the ball carrier, dropping him for no gain and a turnover on downs.
That was the closest USM came to the endzone for the rest of the night. From that point on, MSU outscored USM 20-6 and out-gained them 322-189.
“That was the changing point of the game, right there,” Jones said.
To Jefferson – who had something of a breakout game, earning two sacks among his seven tackles in his first career start – it was reminiscent of the goal line stand his team had against LSU last year, one of the key moments of the early season. The difference for Jefferson was, this time, he was on the field instead of watching from the sideline.
“That told me a lot about our defensive line, right there,” Jefferson said. “We had the same situation against LSU last year. Gave up a big play, got down there and we still had to play … After every play, I get up and look at Nelson, Chris, Nick and Ryan [Brown] and they’re talking about putting the ball down. It was a great feeling for the D-line.”
It was one of several big plays for Jefferson and the defensive line on a night when the focus seemed to be more on pass plays given up, rather than the run plays stuffed and the quarterbacks chased down. Brown, a senior end, had a sack and four quarterback hurries of his own, while the most visually memorable defensive play of the game came on Jefferson’s second sack when he ran straight over the running back who was supposed to block him and dropped USM quarterback Nick Mullens to the ground in seemingly a split second.
“I remember, I crossed the tight end,” Jefferson said as he described the play. “Really, I didn’t even see the running back. I felt him on my leg and I kept rollin’. I guess I just went right through him.”
In the game, like that play, USM put up a fight, but ultimately, MSU overpowered them, proving to be bigger, faster and stronger. It wasn’t quite how anyone expected it to go, as a smiling and somewhat bemused Mullen told reporters around 1 a.m. outside the locker room. But at least it was entertaining.
“I mean, the game had everything, right?” Mullen laughed as he started ticking off the many oddities, good and bad, of the late night. “It kind of had it all. It had onside kicks, blocked punts, fumbled special teams plays, goal line stands, long kickoff returns for touchdowns. You name it, it had it in this game. If you stayed up to watch, you probably saw a neat and exciting game. It was great for the state of Mississippi.”