MOBILE, Ala. – There are no questions left.
In just two years, South Alabama has become entrenched as a legitimate, burgeoning program that’s ready to take the next step up in class on its journey to Football Bowl Subdivision status.
The Jags answered the last questions Saturday behind Kendall Houston’s 178 yards rushing and a defense that showed up when it had to in a 39-34 win over Georgia State in front of 23,446 frenzied fans at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“This team didn’t fold,” said Jaguars Head Coach Joey Jones of the 5-4 Panthers from Atlanta.
“They seem like they played harder in the second half."
The game wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
After GSU had scored to cut USA’s lead to 5 points, Jones put the ball in Houston’s hands and the ex-Vigor Wolves star responded like a heavyweight champ.
He carried the ball on five of the next seven plays for 23 yards, the last being a nine-yard, tackle-breaking burst up the middle to the GSU 46 on third-and-2 with 1:28 left to sew things up.
With no time outs all the Panthers could do was watch Jags quarterback C.J. Bennett adroitly execute the victory formation with two straight kneel downs to keep USA undefeated (8-0).
“We ran the ball well on the last series and didn’t give it back,” said a relieved Jones.
“He (Houston) has great power for a guy only 205 pounds.”
Panthers head Coach Bill Curry gave praise to Houston, but said his guys did a poor job of wrapping him up … particularly on the last series.
“We had 42 men at the line of scrimmage and still couldn’t stop him. There’s no excuse for our tackling to be as bad as it is,” said the ex- ‘Bama, Georgia Tech and Kentucky coach, as exasperation consumed his face.
“When a team is this immature, it’s the coach’s responsibility (to correct it).
“Right now you have no idea what you’ll see with the Georgia State Panthers, but we will fix it this week.”
The Panthers were the last of three consecutive legitimate tests for USA (road games at Lamar and California-Davis the others), and the Jags turned in another tough performance on what … for them … was a big stage.
“This was a huge win for us to prove we could come back after a big win (in California) and play really well,” said linebacker Charlie Higgenbotham, who had six tackles in the game.
“We were letting stuff go underneath early, but we made adjustments and came back strong.”
GSU used short passes underneath early on, taking advantage of USA linebacker’s quick drops, to walk right down the field with the opening kickoff on a 60-yard, 10-play drive culminating with a two-yard TD pass from quarterback Drew Little to Sidney Haynes.
Iain Vance’s PAT was good and just like that … Bang! Bang! Bang! … it was 7-0 GSU and the Panthers had drawn their own line in the sand on USA’s home field.
The question now was how USA would respond to the call.
Bennett had the answers.
The freshman from Tampa validated Jones’ decision to give him the start by directing a crisp, 62-yard drive that ended when Houston burst untouched up the middle from nine yards out for the score.
A botched extra point left USA behind at 7-6, but there was no doubt that from here it was game on.
Jones said his team had to kick-start itself from the last two weeks on the road.
“It takes something out of you to travel two weeks in a row and spend 28 hours on a bus and a plane,” he said. “Our guys didn’t start getting their legs back under them until about Wednesday.”
The Jags tried to flex their muscle on their next possession, driving from their own 45 to the Panthers’25 before the march was halted.
Lawson McGlon’s 42-yard field goal was wide and short, and GSU took over putting USA’s defense squarely on the hot seat.
But the even the best laid plans of mice and defensive coordinators can be derailed by one mistake, and it came when freshman T.J. Glover muffed a punt at the USA 25 and GSU’s Kail Singleton recovered at the South 14 to put the Panthers in business deep in USA territory.
It took them all of three plays to cash in when Little took it in himself from a yard out to give the Panthers a 14-6 lead.
USA wasted no time getting up off the mat, though, to make it 14-13 on Bennett’s 40-yard scoring toss to Bryant Lavender with 9:03 left in the half.
On GSU’s very next possession Tim Harvey picked off Little at the Panthers’ 39 and USA was smelling blood.
From there it’s a good bet the Panthers aren’t sure what hit them.
Bennett found Ralph Turner for 24 yards to the 15, and two plays later Bennett struck again with a nine-yard TD pass to Kevin Helms for a 20-14 lead with 6:57 left in the half.
The Jags weren’t done.
Georgia State went three-and-out on its next possession and the Jags embarked on an efficient 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Bennett’s three-yard strike to Jereme Jones who made a one-handed catch in the left corner of the end zone for a 27-14 bulge.
After Tim Harvey picked off Little at the USA 37 and returned 47 yards to the Panthers’ 18, South had 27 seconds to do more damage, but after two incomplete passes they settled for a 45-yard McGlon field goal for a 30-14 lead at half.
“They ran us out of the stadium with great execution,” said Curry. “The fact we fought back is admirable, but we came here to win.
“We’re not a great team, but we can be better.
USA could muster only three McGlon field goals in the final half, while GSU got a 47-yard TD pass from Little to Danny Williams, a one-yard scoring run from Little and Kelton Hill’s 5-yard run to cut it to five points late in the game.
Bennett finished 12-of-24 for 181 yards and three TDs, one each to Bryant Lavender (4-87), Jones and Kevin Helms.
USA hosts Henderson (Ark.) State next Saturday at 4 p.m., while GSU entertains Lamar, before traveling to Tuscaloosa the following week to meet Alabama.