TOLBERT, DEFENSE LEAD JAG FOOTBALL TO SEASON-OPENING WIN OVER SOUTHERN MISS

MOBILE, Ala. – Jalen Tolbert caught five passes for 168 yards while the University of South Alabama defense surrendered less than 300 yards of offense while forcing four turnovers in a 31-7 season-opening non-conference football victory over Southern Mississippi at Hancock Whitney Stadium on Saturday.

Caullin Lacy also had five receptions for an additional 67 yards as Jake Bentley completed 17-of-22 attempts for 269 yards and accounted for three scores — two passing and one on the ground — in his South debut.

Keith Gallmon Jr. led all players with seven stops, Shawn Jennings contributed six tackles with the trio of Jamal Brooks, Wy’Kevious Thomas and Tré Young finished with five apiece.  Both Shawn Steele II and Davyn Flenord intercepted passes, and Thomas and Devin Rockette had fumble recoveries for the Jag defense.

Frank Gore Jr. carried 19 times for 81 yards to pace the Golden Eagle rushing attack, with Trey Lowe III going 13-of-29 passing for 133 yards.  Santrell Latham made five unassisted tackles and Averie Habas also was credited with five stops for the USM defense.

South Alabama 31, Southern Mississippi 7 (final stats)
South Alabama/Southern Mississippi photo gallery

GAME FACTS
-Lowe III capped a 16-play, 73-yard drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock with a one-yard touchdown with just under four minutes remaining in the opening quarter as the Golden Eagles led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter.
-The Jaguars answered with a pair of touchdown passes from Bentley in a two-minute span in the opening minutes of the second period to take a 14-7 lead at the break.
-Bentley scored on a one-yard run and Diego Guajardo added a 48-yard field goal as South scored on its first two possessions of the second half and push its advantage to 24-7.
-Flenord’s 48-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute capped the scoring in the contest.
-The Jaguar defense gave up a total of 258 yards while allowing USM to convert just 2-of-15 third-down attempts.
-Eleven of South’s 13 first downs came via the pass as Bentley averaged over 15 yards per completion.

NOTES
-The Jaguars played their first game under the direction of Kane Wommack, the third head coach in the program’s history.
-With the win, South swept the home-and-home series with the Golden Eagles.
-This marks the first time the Jags have claimed their opening game of the season in consecutive years since beginning 1-0 each fall from 2014-16.
-South’s defense recorded four takeaways for the second time in the last four contests going back to last November, with the unit’s four sacks the most it has finished with since the 2017 finale.
-Tolbert posted the fourth 100-yard game of his career while surpassing 100 receptions in his time at USA with the effort.
-It’s the second time in the last three outings dating back to last season that Gallmon Jr. has led the team in stops.
-Bentley recorded the fifth-highest completion percentage (minimum 10 attempts) in a contest in the school’s record books after connecting on 77.3 percent of his throws.
-Yam Banks became the first Jaguar since Jeremy Reaves accomplished the feat on Sept. 23, 2017, to force a pair of fumbles in the same game.
-Flenord’s interception return for a touchdown was the first for USA since Rockette rank back a pick 95 yards for a score in a victory over ULM on Oct. 24 a year ago.
-It was the first time since coming to South in 2020 that Darrell Luter Jr. has broken up multiple passes in the same game.
-Trent Tyre’s one-yard reception to open the scoring for the Jaguars was the first touchdown of his career.
-In addition to finishing with a career-high tackle total Thomas had his first fumble recovery since joining the program in 2019.

THEY SAID IT
South Alabama head coach Kane Wommack
Opening statement: “When you think about a game like that, there are so many unknowns walking into the game in the first place. 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. 
Those were good things, but I thought overall that we didn’t play to the standard that I want us to hold this team to. I thought we had poor execution at times. I didn’t think that we finished well. From an execution standpoint, the penalties. We had the targeting early and it is what it is. We had guys playing hard. We had to take a delay of game after a punt. There’s a number of things that we have to get better at and every single person in our building has to have an urgency to move the dial forward for this program.”
On keeping Southern Miss off the scoreboard other than the drive with the targeting penalty: “From a defensive perspective, Southern Miss’ runs were challenging early and some of the things that they got into, [Southern Miss coach] Will [Hall] had not shown at Tulane. I thought he did a nice job of getting his personnel the ball. Trey Lowe can run the ball a little bit and Frank Gore is a really good runner who gets behind those tackles and guards. I thought they did some good things there, but the adjustment that we made defensively in order to attack them was really tremendous. Credit [South Alabama defensive coordinator] Corey [Batoon] and the rest of the defensive staff. They got those guys playing. I thought we lulled a bit in middle of the fourth quarter and that’s unacceptable. We play the game one way here defensively. We have to finish well. Credit our guys. We got them to the sideline and talked to them, and in those last two drives, we finished with a pick-six and then had a great stop and played some physical football. We just have to become more consistent in those things.”
On what he saw from the offense: “We started to open up the game plan after we saw what Southern Miss was in and how we could attack them. I was really pleased with the thigs that we did. [Offensive coordinator] Major [Applewhite] is such an experienced play caller and we’re going to continue to draw those things from him. You’ve got an experienced quarterback in Jake Bentley that I thought delivered the ball and really made some good decisions. We kept finding ways to try to run the football. We’ve got to get better there, we weren’t consistent to where we need to be. We have to continue to work our identity and what it is that we want to get done from a run game standpoint. I’ll credit Southern Miss though, I thought their defensive line was very physical at the point of attack and made some things challenging for us. Everybody has to be relentless in order to find a way to run the football. You’re not going to win games consistently unless you’re able to establish a run game.”
On getting the win and building off of it: “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. 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.”
On what the experience of his first game as a head coach was like: “It was fun for me to see coordinators up in the box making adjustments with their players. Having real adversity whether it was self-inflicted or things that happened on the other side. We trailed at the beginning of the game and had to come back and respond to that adversity. We need football games and need to keep playing in order to get this team to where we want to go. I’m just thankful to have that opportunity. My ‘Super Bowl’ is on Mondays when I get to address the team. We’re going to get it cleaned up on Sunday. There were some great things and some fun things, but what I’m really focused on is the urgency that we need to have.” 

Senior QB Jake Bentley
On the win: “It was huge, and coach talked in the locker room about just finding a way to win. 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.”
On improvements from the game: “For me, working those short crossing routes – I think I just tried to baby some of those, and I think we can always get better with me being able to flip calls and protection, and find a way to finish in the run game late in games. That will be big for us. When they know we’re running it, being able to run it. Those are the big things offensively. But I think the defense played a heck of a game.”
On coming out hot in second half: “We came out with a great plan. This is the best I have ever been prepared for a team, and that’s just so much of Coach [Major] Applewhite and how he has helped me through the preparation process.”
On Jalen Tolbert: “That ability to go get the ball is what makes him so special as a receiver. Knowing you can put it in any spot. He’s so fun to throw to because you know he’s going to take care of you. He’s just a really great receiver.”

Junior DL Gi’Narious Johnson
On the defensive line’s play along the line of scrimmage: “I feel like we did a pretty decent job. We still have a long way to go but it was enough to get us to victory tonight. We have to learn to continue to do our job and be dominant and consistent.”
On what was the key: “That [controlling the line of scrimmage] was the main key. Our coaches told us the game plan was that Southern Miss was going to try to run it down our throats. That starts with us and we decided we couldn’t let that happen. We’ve got to go and dominate the line of scrimmage and cause havoc in the backfield so our linebackers can pick up plays.”
On winning the game as a south Mississippi guy: “It [feels] really good to beat the team that is basically from my hometown. It’s kind of personal to me, but it’s always good to beat a team from Mississippi knowing that I’m from Mississippi.”

Junior CB Darrell Luter Jr.
On what the win versus Southern Miss means to him: “It 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.”
On being in control most of the game: “It was just a matter of keeping your head on straight and not letting that adversity get you. I think that was a big part of it.”
On his performance: “Coach told me before the game to make sure to do my technique and keep my eyes where they are supposed to be, and that’s exactly what I did tonight. That’s why I played the way I played tonight.”

Junior WR Jalen Tolbert
On starting to put plays together after the first couple of drive: “Just keeping our momentum and doing what we were supposed to do. We had a good game plan coming in, we just had to execute.  We started out kind of slow but we picked it up in the second and third quarters. I think we ended kind of slow, but that’s something we can work on heading into the Bowling Green game.”
On getting a win headed into the Bowling Green game: “I think it’s great. To start the season 1-0 and have these coaches confident headed into practice Tuesday, is good. I don’t think we had any major injuries or anything. We’ll get treatment tomorrow, get good work in this week and get ready to go up to Ohio and try to come out 2-0.”
On the connection with Jake Bentley in the passing game: “That’s something we took pride in this offseason after he arrived here. We’ve had long throwing sessions, film sessions, and talk all the time. It’s good to have that kind of connection and see it pay off the first game. We just want to build on it and we talked about that after the game. It was fun to be able to come out here and see it pay off.”

Southern Mississippi head coach Will Hall
On the result: “Really disappointing night, credit to coach [Kane] Wommack and the rest of the South Alabama staff, they really played well. I was disappointed in how we played offensively, that was the turning point in the game. We just didn’t execute in the first half, particularly in the passing game, and that’s on me as the quarterbacks’ coach. We missed a lot of really good throws and that didn’t help early on when Trey Lowe was struggling. In the second half we drove it down in the red zone twice and we fumbled, we busted a snap which is inexcusable. The center-quarterback exchange is the most paramount thing in football. If we punch those in, we’re driving the score to win the game. I thought we battled defensively and I thought Mason Hunt played awesome at punter. All in all, we played hard and took some major steps towards playing good defense. We got a lot to fix offensively, this game was humiliating, but the good thing is it’s all fixable. We got a long way to go as we’re building this program back.”
On the passing game: “We threw it to the right guy and dropped it, we had guys running wide open then didn’t read it right and we had some guys bust routes. In the second half, we got to executing and went right down the field, which was good to see. Trey made some errant throws and he had some bad reads. We had some great preparation, but we did not show up in the game.”

Up next: The Jaguars go on the road for the first time this fall to meet Bowling Green at 3 p.m. (CDT) on Saturday.

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