Can Saints sustain blessed beginning?

Published 3:39 pm Thursday, September 28, 2006

Listening to the coaches, it was hard to tell who won the game between Southern Mississippi and Central Florida.

Despite winning 19-14 in the Conference USA opener for both schools, Southern Mississippi coach Jeff Bower said Tuesday’s game wasn’t his team’s best effort.

“We were a little sloppy and we didn’t have a lot of intensity, but when we had a chance to make a couple of plays, we did and that was the difference,” Bower said.

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Central Florida coach George O’Leary said he was pleased with the improvement he saw in his players.

“I saw some progress, kids playing better, kids playing hard,” O’Leary said. “We just can’t afford to give away points. We handed them 10 points with mistakes and cost ourselves 10 points with mistakes.”

Southern Mississippi linebacker Jeremy Lyons returned an interception four yards for a touchdown and the Golden Eagles got three more points after a blocked point.

Central Florida running back Kevin Smith fumbled in the endzone while attempting to score and kicker Mike Torres missed a 19-yard field goal after the Golden Knights went 85 yards in 16 plays on another drive.

“That’s really the difference in the game,” O’Leary said. “We’ve got to play smarter in a lot of areas.”

Lyons cut in front of Central Florida receiver Mike Walker and grabbed Steve Moffett’s pass, then trotted into the endzone untouched to give the Golden Eagles a 19-7 lead with 10:24 left in the game.

Moffett hit Javid James with a 6-yard scoring pass to cut the Golden Knights deficit to 19-14 with 5:51 left in the game. Central Florida got the ball back at its own 39-yard line with 4:11 left in the game, but Moffett was sacked three times and the Golden Knights turned the ball over at their own 33.

Southern Mississippi improved to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in Conference USA play while Central Florida dropped to 1-3, 0-1.

Lyons’ interception return was indicative of the offensive struggles for both teams all night. The teams combined for seven punts and only 94 yards total offense in the first period and neither team had a third-down conversion until the third period.

Southern Mississippi quarterback Jeremy Young hit Chris Johnson with a 54-yard touchdown pass with 4:18 left in the second quarter. Darren McCaleb added a 19-yard field goal with 17 seconds before halftime to push the lead to 10-0.

Central Florida cut the margin to 10-7 when Kevin Smith dived over the pile for a 1-yard scoring run on the Golden Knights’ first possession of the second half. Smith fumbled in the endzone on Central Florida’s next possession after being hit by Southern Mississippi safety LeVance Richmond, who also recovered the fumble.

McCaleb turned that into a 34-yard field to give Southern Miss a 13-7 lead after three quarters.