Erik Ainge completed 23 of 36 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Arian Foster rushed 23 times for for 125 yards. First-team wideouts Lucas Taylor (118) and Austin Rogers (112) hit triple-digits in receiving yards. Daniel Lincoln nailed three field goals without a miss. Moreover, Tennessee's defense dominated after a slow start as the No. 24 Vols pulled away late to ground the Golden Eagles 39-19.
A 24-yard Justin Estes field goal pulled USM within 27-19 with 12:19 remaining but two special-teams blunders by the visitors helped the Vols score the game's final 12 points and win going away.
First, an attempted bloop kickoff by Britt Barefoot went out of bounds at midfield. With the five-yard penalty tacked on, Tennessee got possession at the USM 45-yard line. Nine plays later Foster plunged into the end zone from a yard out, boosting the lead to 34-19 with 8:32 to go.
Southern Miss' Tory Harrison fumbled the ensuing kickoff after taking a hit from Dorian Davis. Nick Reveiz recovered at the USM 45-yard line and Lincoln eventually nailed a 46-yard field goal that widened the gap to 37-19.
"That was huge," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said of the fumbled kickoff, adding that the out-of-bounds bloop kick "ended up being big, too."
Tennessee's defense, much maligned following an awful performance at Cal, played a superb second half. After allowing the Golden Eagles 246 yards and 16 points in the first two quarters, the Vols surrendered just 108 yards and 3 points in the final two. Tennessee also limited Damion Fletcher, USM's star tailback, to 37 yards on 11 rushes.
Defense was in short supply in the first quarter, however, as the Vols and Golden Eagles combined for two touchdowns and three field goals.
After a field goal by Estes on USM's first possession, Tennessee retaliated by marching 70 yards in seven plays. Ainge hit Rogers from 26 yards out for a 7-3 lead that lasted all of 18 seconds. Jeremy Young hooked up with Chris Johnson for a 69-yard TD pass on the first play of USM's ensuing possession, and the visitors led 10-7.
Barefoot bombed home a 51-yard field goal for USM but Lincoln answered with a 38-yarder for Tennessee, and the first quarter ended with the Golden Eagles on top 13-10.
Estes hit a 40-yard field goal for a 16-10 lead late in the second quarter but Tennessee bounced back, thanks to a fourth-and-seven gamble at the USM 32-yard line. Disdaining the field goal, Ainge hit Rogers for 24 yards to the 8-yard line. Ainge found Josh Briscoe with a five-yard TD pass three plays later, giving the Vols a 17-16 halftime lead.
Fulmer said he decided to go for it on the fourth-and-seven because "it was too short to punt it and too long to kick a field goal. That was a little bit against the wind. We were throwing the heck out of it and they weren't stopping us, so I felt we had a good chance to make it."
That fourth-down conversion seemed to invigorate the Vols and their fans. Both were a lot more animated in the second half.
"The momentum changed at the end of the half," Fulmer conceded. "The crowd got back into it…. I think that gave them energy and our team energy going into the half."
Rogers was the first-half star for Tennessee, accumulating all seven of his catches and all 112 of his yards by intermission. Fulmer called it "a fabulous game" by the sophomore from Nashville.
Lincoln hit a 36-yard field goal on Tennessee's first possession of the second half to pad the lead to 20-16 but USM appeared to be driving for the go-ahead score when Jerod Mayo separated Tory Harrison from the ball. Jarod Parrish recovered at Tennessee's 46-yard line. A 35-yard Ainge-to-Taylor strike moved the ball to the 9-yard line and Foster scored standing up on the next play, widening the gap to 27-16 and setting up the Vols' big fourth-quarter finish.
Sophomore tailback LaMarcus Coker, back from a one-month suspension, showed some rust. He ran the wrong way on his first play of the game, causing a busted play that forced Ainge to take a one-yard loss. Coker finished with 11 yards on four carries in what Fulmer called "a credible performance."
Freshman phenom Lennon Creer finally got an opportunity to show what he can do, and responded with a sterling debut. The talented Texan carried six times for 53 yards (including a 38-yard scamper) and made a couple of dazzling moves to turn a safety-valve pass into a seven-yard gain.
"Creer's going to be an exciting back," Fulmer said. "He's a special back. We'll get him in the game more as we go along."
Punter Britton Colquitt, who Fulmer said is still "a little sore" due to a pulled quadricep, did not play. Backup Chad Cunningham handled the punting chores, averaging 40.7 yards on three kicks. Fulmer said he expects Colquitt to be ready for Game 3 at Florida, the reigning national champ.
First-team cornerback Antonio Gaines had to be helped to the sidelines in the second quarter and did not return to action. Fulmer said only that the senior defender has a "significant knee injury."