USM edges Bearcats
By By Stan Caldwell/EMG sports writer
October 20, 2002
Golden Eagle D' holds on for win
HATTIESBURG With the game and possibly its season hanging in the balance Saturday, the University of Southern Mississippi needed a big-play maker.
Right on cue, up stepped Etric Pruitt.
The junior safety broke open a tie game early in the fourth quarter by carrying an interception for a touchdown that sent the Golden Eagles to a 23-14 victory over Cincinnati in a Conference USA game before 28,031 at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
The Homecoming victory lifted USM to 5-2 overall and kept the Eagles atop C-USA at 3-0. Cincinnati dropped its third straight game to fall to 2-5 and 1-2.
USM won despite not playing particularly well on offense or defense. The Bearcats dominated the statistics, outgaining the Golden Eagles with 409 yards to 211 and getting twice as many first downs. But two critical UC turnovers gave the Golden Eagles easy touchdowns, and USM owned the fourth quarter.
USM's only turnover of the game led to the first score, a 22-yard field goal by Jonathan Ruffin. Derrick Nix lost the handle at midfield on an unusual play when quarterback Dustin Almond bumped him while trying to make a block.
The Bearcats drove inside the USM 10-yard-line, but were denied the end zone on third-and-goal from the Eagle 5 when Joe Henley and Rod Davis stopped Demarco McCleskey for a 1-yard gain.
The Golden Eagles took the ensuing kickoff for what would prove to be their only sustained offense of the day, going 80 yards on seven plays, with Nix getting the score on a 7-yard run.
A pass interference call on third down got the drive started, then Almond escaped a seemingly-certain sack, rolled right and fired a strike downfield to Chris Johnson for 33 yards.
Other than that, however, Almond's first career start was a rocky one. The redshirt freshman completed just 7 of 22 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. On the plus side, he was not intercepted.
The Bearcats drove to the USM 19 on the next series before stalling, then Greg Brooks blocked Ruffin's 32-yard field goal attempt.
Late in the second quarter, Cincinnati drove to a third-and-6 from the Eagle 8, but Pruitt and Alex Ray stopped LaDaris Vann a yard short of the first down, forcing the Bearcats to settle for a 20-yard Ruffin field goal.
USM made the first of its big plays on defense on UC's second possession of the third quarter. On third down from the UC 47, Bearcat quarterback Gino Guidugli mishandled a snap out of the shotgun formation, Eagle linebacker Michael Boley picked up the fumble and rumbled 32 yards to the Bearcat 5.
Nix lost a yard on the first play of the drive, but Almond connected with Marvin Young on a 6-yard scoring pass to make the score 14-6.
Cincinnati tied the game, however, by driving the ball straight down USM's throat behind backup quarterback George Murray. The Bearcats drove 80 yards on 13 plays 12 of them runs with McCleskey getting the score on a 9-yard run. Murray got the two-point conversion on a keeper.
The Golden Eagles went three-and-out, then gave the ball back to the Bearcats. Murray guided UC to the Bearcat 42 as Cincinnati bid for the lead, but Pruitt stepped in front of an ill-advised third-down pass and dashed untouched for what proved to be the winning points for USM.
USM dominated the field position battle the rest of the way, thanks to a fine day's work by punter Mark Haulman, who averaged 43.3 yards on nine kicks. His eighth punt was a 49-yarder that was downed at the UC 3, and on third down, Guidugli was sacked by Henley in the end zone for a safety.
The Golden Eagles will have some extra time to prepare for a dangerous trip to Ft. Worth, Tex., to play Texas Christian on Oct. 30.