NEW ORLEANS – A group of Southern Miss seniors who arrived when the program was at a low point left the Superdome Saturday night with a bowl trophy.
The Golden Eagles topped Louisiana-Lafayette 28-21 in the New Orleans Bowl Saturday night before a crowd of 35,061.
USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens got to finish his career as winner after enduring a 1-11 season as a freshman. He also got to get his hands on a trophy for the first time after losing last year in the Conference USA title game and the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
"Last year, I was crying because we lost at the podium (in Dallas). Now, I'm trying not to cry because we won at the podium," Mullens said. "I've had some success over my career, but I never held up a trophy."
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Mullens completed 25 of 40 passes for 346 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his final game as a Golden Eagle.
While Mullens earned a triumphant exit, junior receiver Allenzae Staggers was the star of the night for the Golden Eagles. He set a New Orleans Bowl record in receiving yardage with 11 catches for 230 yards and one touchdown.
"This guy made dynamic play after dynamic play," USM head coach Jay Hopson said as he pointed to Staggers during the post-game press conference.
USM senior defensive end Ja'Boree Poole had the most dominant game of his career in his final college contest. The Brookhaven native finished with game highs of eight tackles and three sacks.
Poole regularly beat the offensive tackle in front of him.
"I'm a speed rusher and I just came out hard," he said. "I just wanted to go out there and show the young guys how much this game means. I just had a good game."
USM (7-6) finished with six sacks and held ULL to 252 yards total.
The Southern Miss offense began the game about as well as it could have hoped to with back-to-back three-play scoring drives.
Mullens hit Staggers on a deep toss for 55 yards on USM's first play of the game. Two plays later, Ito Smith ran in the end zone from 11 yards out.
On the first play of the next USM possession, Mullens hit Staggers over the middle and the receiver made a couple of men miss on a gain of 66 yards. Two plays later, Mullens threw 6 yards to Ito Smith for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 7:17 left in the first quarter.
"It's fair to say we wanted to put the ball in the air a little bit," Hopson said. "Those plays were big."
After USM built the early lead, the penalties began to pile up for the Golden Eagles. ULL took advantage of those mistakes with Anthony Jennings and Dion Ray both providing rushing touchdowns to tie the game at 14-14 midway through the second quarter.
USM junior safety Tarvarius Moore, a former Pearl River Community College standout, prevented ULL (6-7) from taking the lead late in the first half when he jumped high to pull in an interception at the goal line.
Mullens worked the Golden Eagles down to ULL 27 following Moore's interception, but he didn't quite the snap off in time to set up a potential 45-yard field goal try.
USM proved more efficient on offense in the second half with Smith playing a larger role.
Mullens finished off the first drive of the second half with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Allenzae Staggers.
Smith scored his third and final touchdown of the night when punched it in from 1 yard out with 12:26 remaining.
Smith ran 26 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
ULL found life late when Terrance Crawford picked off a pass of Mullens that was deflected well down field, setting the Cajuns up at the USM 18.
Jennings, an LSU transfer, finished off the five-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 28-21 with 5:10 left.
ULL got the ball back with 2:02 remaining, but the Cajuns' drive ended at the USM 48 on an incomplete pass by Jennings.
Hopson lifted the trophy high as the Golden Eagles celebrated on a podium set up in the middle of the field.
"It's been a great four years and we started at the bottom," Mullens said. "We found a way to finish strong. I have a lot of memories and relationships I made here with great coaches and great teammates. Southern Miss will always have a special place in my heart."