Tech did not expect to win Saturday’s match at The Rock. The Bulldogs wanted more. “We want them to embarrass,” Trent Taylor, Tech’s brilliant wide receiver, stated in an interview early this week. Didn’t happen. It wasn’t even close. Southern Miss’ senior wide receiver D.J. Mullens, and quarterback Nick Mullens are seniors. Thompson returned to the line-up for the first time since weeks and defeated Tech 39-24 in order to be bowl eligible. It was actually more one-sided that the score suggests. Tech ran for eight yards. USM out-gained visitors by 431 yards to 246. Tech scored a late garbage-time touchdown to make it 39-17 for the Golden Eagles. Mullens, who had not played in more than two-and-a-half games since Nov. 5, after suffering a concussion at Charlotte, may have played the perfect game of his career. After passing concussion protocol testing on Monday, Mullens was cleared to play. He did his best Drew Brees imitation and completed 29 of 33 throws for 342 yard and three touchdowns. Mullens also ran for a touchdown, sneaking in for the game-winning touchdown just 2 minutes, 19 second after the senior guard Brandon Farmer blocked and senior tackle Will Freeman. Farmer and Freeman took Mullens off their shoulders about 10 minutes later and gave him a ride to the end of the field. He was put down by Farmer and Freeman just in time for Skip Holtz’s congratulations. Freeman, who switched from defensive tackle to offensive line for his senior season, said, “It was great having Nick back. He is a great competitor, and a great leader. “I’ll tell you one thing, it has been an honour for me to block him,” Thompson, another senior, had a career game and caught 12 passes for 135 yards with two touchdowns. Thompson grabbed Jay Hopson, first-year head coach, and bear-hugged him. Thompson stated, “I told him this week that we were going to win.” “I just knew it. Although I don’t know why, I knew that we would win. I just wanted to go to a bowl match. It doesn’t matter if it is in Jackson, Mississippi or if the entertainment is at the mall. “I just want to play at a bowl game.” USM will probably go bowling, although the Eagles will need to wait until then to find out their destination. It could be New Orleans. It could be Hawaii. Could be The Bahamas. It could be Boca Raton or New Mexico. The current Conference USA team that is bowl eligible for the Eagles is five. There are six tie-ins to the league’s bowl. North Texas State and UTSA will play Saturday games in hopes of achieving their sixth win and becoming bowl eligible. Another factor is that not all bowl slots will be filled by conferences. This could allow for another slot to be available for seven CUSA teams who become bowl eligible. Hopson stated, “I hope to play somewhere,” but for now, he just wants to enjoy the game. This was a special day for our seniors as well as for the football team. The team has not given up despite many adversity. They never gave up, even in the most difficult times. “I am proud of the integrity and fight of this football team,” USM’s 22 seniors addressed their fellow teammates on Friday night. Although the messages varied, there was a common theme: Let’s get out swinging. From the first possession of USM, they did. The Eagles won and chose to receive the toss. Tech was off balance at the start. They lined up with Keon Howard, the freshman quarterback, and Mullens in the game. Wide receiver and quarterback were alternate positions. Ito Smith, running back, took the snap once, when both Howard and Mullens were in the game. Smith ran 24 times for 127 yard. He rushed for four more times and threw four more passes, gaining 63 yards. He ended his junior season with 1,321 yards of rushing and 44 receptions for 454 yards. This is 1,775 yards at scrimmage. That’s quite a lot. He is worthy of the C Spire Conerly Trophy. Hopson stated, “Ito plays well in every game.” He has been consistent great this season. Smith is a great gamer and a good three-down back. Smith is a football player.” Smith failed to score Saturday after scoring at least one touchdown in 16 consecutive games. You wouldn’t know it if he didn’t care. His grin was almost as big and wide as Mullens. The USM team opened the season with a win at Kentucky. It was a big win at home for the Eagles that ended it. What happened in between? Many injuries and more turnovers. USM was last in the country in turnover margin, at minus-18. They won Saturday’s turnover battle 3-1. Hopson replied to the question about the games that followed: “It wasn’t always what we wanted. But we kept fighting. I don’t know if we ever were more proud of a group than we are tonight.” Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Check out his columns as well as his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.