Tez Parks, subbing for Ito Smith, makes a cut during USM’s remarkable victory over Louisiana Tech.

 

With 90 seconds to go late Saturday night in a marathon-ish, lightning-delayed game at Ruston, La., Southern Miss trailed Louisiana Tech 27-16. The Golden Eagles, with no timeouts remaining, faced a fourth down (six yards to go) at the Tech 32.

USM’s chances of winning?

According to ESPN.com, which charts such things, Tech’s chances of winning were 99.8 percent. USM’s chances of winning were two-tenths of one percent. A comparison: When the New England Patriots trailed the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 midway through the third quarter of the Super Bowl, ESPN’s chart showed the Pats with a 1.2 percent chance of winning, six times as likely as USM’s Saturday night.

Rick Cleveland

In other words, the Golden Eagles might have had a much higher chance of getting struck by lightning before going to the locker room for the lightning delay in the first quarter.

Final score: Southern Miss 34, Louisiana Tech 27.

It ranks right in there with the most unlikely finishes in Southern Miss history – hell, in history of the sport – or any sport.

So many things had to happen right for USM to erase an 11-point deficit with 90 seconds to go and then win in double-overtime. Listen: Besides having no timeouts remaining, USM’s best player, running back Ito Smith, was on the bench with leg cramps.

First things first, and give some credit to USM coach Jay Hopson for this: They had to decide what to do on fourth down and six yards to go. Hopson decided to kick a field goal, a decision made much easier because USM kicker Parker Schaunfield, whose flowing hair makes it look like he just came from playing bass guitar at a rock concert, is money. Schaunfield had already kicked field goals of 45, 34 and 26 yards. Now, he was facing a 49-yarder he had to make to give USM even a sliver of hope. He had never made a kick so long at USM. He nailed it.

That made it 27-19 with 83 seconds left, and USM had to kick to Tech. And remember, USM had no timeouts. Clearly, USM had to recover an onsides kick. When teams are expecting an onsides kick, the percentage of success is just below 20 percent. So, of course, Briggs Bourgeois’ perfectly high-bouncing kick, eluded Tech and was recovered by the Golden Eagles’ Paxton Schrimsher, the team’s middle linebacker.

Even that success came with a caveat: USM was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. So, trailing by eight points with just over a minute left, the Golden Eagles began from their own 37 with no timeouts and no Ito.

Tez Parks, subbing for Smith, ran 11 yards on first down to move it to the USM 48. Next, quarterback Keon Howard ran for 15 yards to the Tech 37. A 15-yard personal foul against Tech moved it to the 22 with 31 ticks left.

Korey Robertson makes one of his crucial catches.

So then Howard hit Korey Robertson with a touchdown pass, and then hit Jay’Shawn Washington with a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 27. If you are keeping score, Southern Miss hit a 49-yard field goal, recovered an onsides kick, moved 63 yards in three plays for a touchdown and hit a two-point conversion all within one minute of playing time.

Nothing to it. That’s what you must do when you have a two-tenths of one percent chance of winning. And still there was more to do.

First, the Eagles had to stop Tech, which they did when Tech narrowly missed a 64-yard field goal that was a couple of feet short to send the game to overtime.

Next, they had to win overtime – and to do it, they had to overcome themselves. Tech had the ball first in the first overtime and Tarvarious Moore’s interception stopped Tech. So then all USM needed was a field goal to win and, as we have noted, Schaunfield already was four-for-four. The Eagles could have kicked a 42-yard field goal on first down to win. Instead, Parks ran for three, which would have made it a 39-yard field goal, something Schaunfield can do in his sleep. But, no, Howard, a sophomore, checked out of a second down running play, and threw a pass. Why? Don’t know, but Tech intercepted forcing a second overtime.

Many coaches I have covered would have never let Howard back on the field after the unfortunate audible and interception. Hopson not only sent Howard back out, he did so with a pass call on first down. Naturally, Howard threw into the end zone where Robertson leaped over a Tech defender and snagged a touchdown to give USM the lead for the first time in the game that now lasted well over four hours. Schaunfield, who has never missed an extra point at USM, nailed this one.

By now, USM’s chances of winning had risen from two-tenths of one percent to well over 50 percent. And that became 100 percent when USM, eschewing a “prevent” defense, went after Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith of Meridian with a vengeance in the second overtime – sacking him and forcing desperate throws – and sealed the deal.

Facing 99.8 percent odds against them, the Golden Eagles, quite remarkably, had won.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

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