In a season that went as far away from perfect as possible, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles put in arguably their best performance of the season in defeating the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 39-24 in Hattiesburg Friday night.
The win not only gave the Golden Eagles faithful a glimpse of what could have been if not for injuries, but it also secured a second straight bowl berth for the program. Much of the immense improvement came from an offense that returned senior signal caller Nick Mullens. The Alabama native missed the last three games with an injury, but found a way to make it back for senior night with the season on the line.
Mullens and the Southern Miss offense shredded Louisiana Tech with 342 yards in the air, while Ito Smith added another 127 yards on the ground to break the 1,300 yard mark on the season. Smith still has one game to play and should break the 3,000 yard mark for his career in the bowl game.
Early on, it looked like a shootout with points scored on five of the first six drives of the game. Even the defense got in the act with the Bulldogs picking up a fumble by Mullens and racing the other way for the score. Look, just watch it for yourself.
When the dust settled, it was 17-14 Southern Miss with the Golden Eagles driving for another late first half score.
This time, DJ Thompson caught a Mullens pass from eight yards out to take a 23-14 lead as the PAT was blocked. Alas, USM left too much time on the clock for a dangerous Louisiana Tech offense and Ryan Higgins drove the ball as close as the six yard line before settling for a field goal to take a 23-17 deficit to the half.
Expecting another half of offensive fireworks, the fans were instead treated with the most dominant defense from a CUSA squad in some time. The Golden Eagles shut La. Tech down with a missed field goal attempt, turnover on downs, interception, interception, punt, and interception.
By the time the Bulldogs found the scoreboard once again, it was 39-17 with under a minute left in the game. A Jarred Craft touchdown made the score look closer at 39-24, sending Southern Miss to a bowl berth.
For Southern Miss, this patience trying season extends for one more game with the team that everyone expected finally showing up once again. They are certainly heading for a bowl berth, but it has yet to be determined what bowl they end up in. My personal guess would be a trip to the Hawaii Bowl to face…. um Hawaii.
The Bulldogs fall to 8-4 on the season, but are still the winners of the CUSA West Division and will face either Western Kentucky or Old Dominion in the CUSA title game. Then they are on to the postseason with a multitude of bowl options on the horizon.