/High-flying finish for USM in New Orleans Bowl

High-flying finish for USM in New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — A lot of pundits believe that college football is too dominated by bowl games and that there is no need for games such as the New Orleans Bowl. This game matched teams with 6-6 records. I’d respond, “No one forces these pundits to watch.” They would have missed a lot Saturday night (and Sunday morning). Southern Miss beat the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns 28-21 in front of 35,061 spectators and an ESPN national audience. The magic of USM’s running back Ito Smith, and wide receiver Allenzae Straggers were witnessed by those who could not see. They witnessed quarterback Nick Mullens have one of the most productive careers ever recorded in Golden Eagle football. Another outstanding running back from ULL was Elijah McGuire. They witnessed two regional rivals fight each other before, and sometimes after, the whistle. They witnessed a game that was not decided until the last-ditch ULL pass failed with 12 seconds left. New Orleans is certainly not complaining, as the city is a great place to live. The hotel booked several hotel rooms in a slow season. Restaurants and taverns were packed with fans, who bought a lot more beer and oysters than they did shrimp. ESPN aired for more than four hours. Except for ULL defensive backs, nobody was hurt. Many of them were tired of fighting Smith and following Staggers around the field. Smith, a small, compact, 195-pounder showed surprising power, explosiveness and quickness. Smith scored three touchdowns, and another was called back. He ran for 138 yards, and several times picked-up ULL blitzes. This gave Mullens another second to make a big throw. Staggers was voted MVP of the game and caught a New Orleans Bowl record 11 passes, for 230 yards. He caught a number of difficult passes down the middle, as well as long ones down the middle. Staggers, like Smith, still has one year of eligibility, which should make the new year brighter for USM fans. Jay Hopson and his staff face the problem of replacing Mullens who, after a 4 year stint as USM’s starting quarterback, finished with a 346-yard passing performance. He also had a two-touchdown passing score of 246 yards. His career totals, 11,994 passing yards and the 87 touchdowns, are both record-breaking numbers for a school that Austin Davis and Brett Favre attended. It will be difficult to replace Mullens. He is an integral part of the program and his contribution has never been greater than when he led the Eagles to a win over Louisiana Tech 22 days ago. This allowed him to continue playing in black and white. The defense stood out throughout the game, holding the Cajuns to just 252 yards, which is slightly less than half the Eagles’ total. Jaboree Poole, defensive end, and Dylan Bradley, tackle, constantly harassed Anthony Jennings (a transfer from LSU), who only completed 8 of 20 throws for 95 yard. McGuire, an elite running back with speed and power, was also limited to 99 yards by them. Superdome fans also witnessed why both teams entered the game with six losses each. USM was the worst team in the country, with 17 turnovers. They lost two and gained only one back. It is impressive to finish the season with a winning record despite this glaring statistic. It’s impossible to find the exact number, but very few teams have had such a high turnover rate and still managed to win more than their losses. The Eagles were also penalized this night. They lost 131 yards on 13 flags. They were too hard on themselves. ULL’s weaknesses in the passing game, both defensively and offensively, were also obvious. If you are unable to throw accurately or defend another player who can, it’s nearly impossible to win today’s college game. The USM locker room was filled with smiles, hugs, and cheers. Although they lost five of six games in October, November, it seemed like a distant memory. Hopson stated, “We made big plays when it mattered most.” Mullens said, “I have never been prouder of a team of guys in my entire life.” We were able to present a bowl trophy to our Superdome crowd.” Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Check out his columns as well as his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org. To support this work, you can start a regular donation today to celebrate our Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this story. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. This Story Republished