HOUSTON, Tex. -- Welcome back, Kwadra Griggs.
The junior quarterback who had not started for Southern Miss since Sept. 30 because of an injured left hand, returned behind center Saturday and turned in the first 300-yard passing game of his career as the Golden Eagles outlasted Rice 43-34 at Rice Stadium.
With the victory, the Golden Eagles (6-4, 4-2 Conference USA) snapped a two-game losing streak and became bowl-eligible for a third consecutive season and the second straight in Coach Jay Hopson’s two-year tenure.
Rice (1-9, 1-5) dropped its eight consecutive game and lost to USM for a third consecutive season.
Griggs threw for 331 yards and tied a career-high with three touchdown passes as USM scored on all eight of its offensive possessions (three field goals, five touchdowns).
Junior Korey Robertson put up a career-best 157 yards on eight catches and scored twice, the fourth time this season that he had two touchdown receptions in a game.
Griggs’ other touchdown pass went to freshman Tim Jones, who had two catches for 56 yards. His 51-yard touchdown reception was the first score of his Southern Miss career.
Senior Ito Smith put up his first 100-yard outing in four games, rushing for 150 yards and two scores on 24 carries as the Golden Eagles racked up 517 yards total offense against the Owls.
As it turned out, Southern Miss needed every bit of offense it could muster.
Rice running back Nahshon Ellerbe ran for 156 yards and four touchdowns, sparking a Rice ground game that went for 254 yards, the most running yards the Golden Eagles had allowed in a game all season.
Rice finished with 381 yards total offense, and starting in the second quarter, scored touchdowns on five straight possessions to keep the pressure on the Golden Eagles throughout the game.
The teams combined Saturday for 77 points and 898 yards total offense.
But every time the Owls scored, USM answered. The Golden Eagles had a field goal and four touchdowns following Rice scores, including matching the Owls touchdown for touchdown in the second half.
After Smith scored on an 18-yard run with 2:55 left in the game, Southern Miss’ defense bowed up, with linebacker Paxton Schrimsher sacking Rice quarterback Miklo Smalls on fourth down to end a Rice comeback.
Junior Parker Shaunfield kicked three, first-half field goals, including a career-long, 51-yarder on the final play of the first half to leave the Golden Eagles up 22-14 at the break.
The Golden Eagles jumped out to a 13-0 lead on Shaunfield field goals of 42 yards and 29 yards and Griggs’ pass to Jones.
Rice cut the lead to 13-7 on Walter’s run, but Smith capped a 65-yard drive with a 2-yard run to boost the lead back to 19-7. Ellerbe scored on a 7-yard run to get the Owls within 19-14, but Shaunfield’s long kick sailed just inside the left upright to leave Southern Miss up by eight at the break.
Neither team’s defense could stop the other in the second half. But every time Rice scored, Southern Miss responded.
Ellerbe scored on a 12-yard run, but Rice’s two-point conversion attempt failed and Southern Miss still led 22-20.
Griggs came back with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Robertson to push the lead back to nine.
After Ellerbe scored on a 17-yard run, Griggs and Robertson hooked up again. Robertson brought in the pass then made two tacklers miss, resulting in a 57-yard touchdown and a 36-27 Southern Miss lead.
Robertson leads the Golden Eagles with 59 catches for 861 yards and nine touchdowns.
Ellerbe went over from 1-yard out for Rice’s last score, but Smith, who moved past the career 4,000-yard mark Saturday, went around the left side to give the Golden Eagles breathing room with less than 3 minutes to play.
Southern Miss returns Saturday to M.M. Roberts Stadium to wrap up the home portion of its schedule, welcoming the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (1-9, 1-5) for a 2 p.m. kickoff.