USM answers Illinois' challenge

By By Stan Caldwell / EMG Sports Writer
Sept. 8, 2002
HATTIESBURG The University of Southern Mississippi wanted to make a statement Saturday at home against a big-time team in front of a national television audience.
Consider that statement made.
The Golden Eagles used a crushing ground attack and a smothering defensive effort to overcome the University of Illinois Saturday 23-20 in front a wet, but happy crowd of 22,183 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Nix was unequivocally the player of the game for USM, carrying 27 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning score early in the fourth quarter.
As good as Nix was, however, the Golden Eagle defense stood equally tall, keeping the Fighting Illini out of the end zone twice on goal-line stands.
The Golden Eagles had to overcome two big plays by the Illini in the first quarter that might have whipped a lesser team. The crowd had barely settled in when Eugene Wilson took a punt 70 yards for an Illinois touchdown after the first series of the game.
However, USM gave an indication of how the day was going to go for the Illini offense on the next series. The Eagles got the ball past midfield on their next possession, then Mark Haulman's second punt of the day was downed at the Illinois 1-yard-line.
On second-and-9, quarterback Dustin Ward went into his own end zone to pass, but Terrell Paul knocked the ball loose, forcing a safety.
After an exchange of punts, USM drove to the Illinois 16, when D'Angelo was sacked for a loss of 7 yards, then he was sacked again on the next play, and the ball was jarred loose.
The fumble was recovered by Taman Jordan for Illinois, who ran 25 yards before he appeared to accidentally spike, then kick the ball forward. Mike Hall picked up the loose ball and rumbled 30 yards to complete a bizarre touchdown and a 14-2 Illinois lead.
The Golden Eagles showed just how tough they were late in the first quarter, driving 67 yards in six plays for a touchdown. Nix ran on five of the plays, including the 3-yard touchdown, but the big play was a 34-yard pass from D'Angelo to Kenneth Johnson that set USM up at the Illinois 8.
Illinois then drove from its own 31 to a first-and-goal at the USM 6. Two
running plays got the Illini to the 1-yard-line, but Alex Ray and Joe Henley stuffed Antoineo Harris for no gain, and Illinois had to settle for a 19-yard Peter Christofilakos field goal, making the score 17-9.
USM immediately closed the gap, driving 77 yards on seven plays on the next series, the final 44 yards coming on a pass play from D'Angelo to Marvin Young. The Eagles tried for two points and failed, but they were back in the game at 17-15.
D'Angelo played it close to the vest for the most part, thanks to a steady rainstorm that left the field and the ball slick. He finished with 14 completions in 26 attempts for 171 yards and no interceptions. And, except for those back-to-back sacks in the first quarter, he was not sacked and rarely pressured.
By contrast, Illinois quarterbacks Ward and Jon Beutjer were sacked four times and were hit hard all day long. For the game, Illinois was 13-of-33 passing for 163 yards and two interceptions.
The score stayed 17-15 through the third quarter, but the Illini began to move the ball successfully on the ground, especially with Harris, who gained 162 yards on 31 carries. It was Harris who carried Illinois to a first-and-goal at the USM 6 on a 26-yard burst late in the third period.
Harris gained 3 yards, but Beutjer lost a yard on a bootleg attempt. On third down, linebacker Rod Davis came clean on a blitz for a sack that lost 11 yards. Then Greg Brooks came from the left side to block Christofilkos' 32-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the quarter.
As the fourth quarter began with the Golden Eagles at their own 13-yard-line, it looked like USM's big stand would go for naught, as a false start penalty pushed the ball back five yards. But D'Angelo hit LeRoy Handy for an 8-yard gain and a 7-yard gain that just squeezed out a first down by only a couple of inches.
D'Angelo then found Johnson for an 8-yard gain, and 15 yards were added for a roughing the passer penalty.
With a first down at the Eagle 46, USM then put the game on Nix's back. Nix ran 4 yards to midfield, then burst up the middle, cut to the right and outsprinted the pursuit for a 50-yard scoring run. D'Angelo hit Young for a two-point conversion and a 23-17 lead.
That was all the scoring USM could muster, and Illinois still had 12:55 left on the clock. Beutjer finally got some time on the next series, and found Greg Lewis on the left sideline for a 29-yard gain to the USM 28, but the Illini could only get the ball as far as the 23 before settling for a 41-yard field goal by Christofilakos.
With the score 23-20, Illinois had three more possessions in the game, but was never again close to scoring.

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