Southern Miss claims New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS – Southern Miss didn’t allow what happened to it in the first half repeat itself in the second – but it was really close to happening.

The Golden Eagles held off the Ragin’ Cajuns 28-21 in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday night (or early Monday morning). In both the first and second half, Southern Miss held a 14-point lead and Louisiana-Lafayette erased the 14-0 deficit in the first half, but it couldn’t overcome the 28-14 hole in the second.

“Just a hard fought football game,” Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson said. “I thought there were certainly a lot of back and forth. Our guys really fought for 60 and they made some big plays.”

With the 28-14 lead and 7:20 left in the game, Southern Miss decided to throw it deep on a second-and-9 play from its own 32-yard line. Lafayette’s Travis Crawford intercepted the pass and returned it to Southern Miss’ 19-yard line to set up a scoring opportunity.

*** Click for a PHOTO GALLERY from James Pugh. ***

Five plays later, quarterback Anthony Jennings punched it in from the 3-yard line to cut it to 28-21 with 5:05 left in the game.

The Golden Eagles got the ball back and used three minutes of clock before punting the ball away to give Lafayette two minutes to move the ball 82 yards for the chance to tie the game.

But, Southern Miss’ defense stepped up like it did for most of the game and forced the Ragin’ Cajuns to turn the ball over on downs with 12 seconds in the game.

Lafayette recorded 252 yards of total offense (157 rushing and 95 passing) in the game, while the Eagles’ defensive line built a camp in the Cajuns’ backfield with six sacks and nine tackles for a loss. Ja’Boree Poole led the way with three sacks, Dylan Bradley added 1.5 sacks and Xavier Thigpen had a half of a sack.

“Ja’Borre, I thought that last series or two, he just turned the gas on there at the end and really kind of ended the ballgame,” Hopson said. “Just a good job with everybody involved and I’m blessed to be around these guys.” 

The first half started as well as Southern Miss could have asked. Louisiana-Lafayette took its first drive near midfield, but the Eagles’ defense held strong and forced a punt. On the fourth-down punt play, the ball hit a Louisiana-Lafayette player’s leg then a USM player, and Lafayette jumped on the ball thinking it got the turnover. The referees gave the ball to USM and upheld the call when it was reviewed.

Senior quarterback Nick Mullens and his offense needed just three plays to find the end zone. Mullens connected with Allenzae Staggers for a 55-yard gain, then junior Ito Smith rushed the ball twice, the first for a yard and the second for an 11-yard touchdown run. That gave Southern Miss a 7-0 lead early in the game.

The Golden Eagles’ defense flexed their muscle on The Ragin’ Cajuns next drive, allowing -4 yards on three plays. Southern Miss’ Poole got to the quarterback twice, once for a sack and the other was a big hit after Jennings released the ball. Jennings missed the next play after the hit, too.

Again, Southern Miss needed three plays to find pay dirt. Mullens completed a 66-yard pass to Staggers, then after a 2-yard loss by Smith, Mullens completed a 6-yard pass to Smith over the middle for the 14-0 lead.

“It’s fair to say we came in here wanting to put the ball in the air,” Hopson said. “I think those plays were big. When you get explosive plays like that right off the jump, it gives you a lot of momentum in back-to-back drives. We didn’t do things that were great right after that for awhile, but at the end of the day we made a lot of plays back there. Our guys kept fighting and that’s what I’m so proud of.”

Staggers set a New Orleans Bowl record for receiving yards in a game with his 202 yards in the first half. He finished the night with 230 receiving yards and a touchdown.

“It was just a blessing, but we executed the plays,” Staggers said. “We had great precision and I was just open.” 

But, Southern Miss wouldn’t see too many positive plays after that in the first two quarters. It would follow the two scoring drives up with a three-and-out, missed field goal, fumble, punt and the last drive ended when the clock hit zeros for halftime. Mullens tried to spike the ball to allow his team to get a field goal try, but it wasn’t quick enough.

Louisiana-Lafayette matched the score with one of its own on the next drive, as it traveled 66 yards on nine plays in 3:55 of game time to make it a 14-7 game. Jennings’ rush from the 4-yard line was the scoring play.

The Ragin’ Cajuns scored again after Mullens’ fumble while he was looking left and Lafayette’s Tre’maine Lightfoot made the play for the strip-sack. Otha Peters recovered the ball and moved the ball 15 yards closer to the end zone. On Lafayette’s first play, Southern Miss was called for a personal foul to put the ball at USM’s 12-yard line, then Dion Ray scored on the next play to tie the game at 14-all.

Nick Mullens finished his final game in a Southern Miss uniform with 346 passing yards on a 25-of-40 completion rate. Junior Ito Smith led the rushing attack with 138 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns.

“It was a complete team effort,” Mullens said. “Coaches, teammates, complete team effort and team victory.”