BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - The Southern Miss football team provided the nation's best turnaround story, but the book on the 2015 campaign will not include a Conference USA championship.
WKU overcame a two-touchdown lead by Southern Miss in the first half to roll to a 45-28 victory over Saturday before a crowd of 16,823 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
Southern Miss (9-4) will find out Sunday which bowl game it's headed to.
"I honestly didn't expected to be in this position," USM coach Todd Monken said Saturday after the game. "I expected to be sitting here talking about our sixth Conference USA championship. These are two teams that are equally matched. I expected the winner to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes. That was the case today."
Southern Miss cost itself dearly with five turnovers.
In a game that was expected to be an offensive shootout, it was WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty's offense that had by far the most success. The redshirt senior completed 34 of 52 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Doughty and his teammates were able to celebrate a conference championship in front of their fans.
The Hilltoppers (11-2) entered the 2015 campaign as a favorite to win the conference championship and they were able to back up those expectations.
"It's huge," Doughty said. "We put our goals on paper at the beginning of the season and we were able to achieve those goals. It's an incredible feeling."
WKU receiver Taywan Taylor had a big game catching the ball with eight receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
While Doughty put up big numbers once again, USM junior quarterback Nick Mullens had his most difficult game of the season.
Mullens threw an interception on the game's opening drive and proved to be inconsistent the rest of the way
He completed 15-of-30 passes for 181 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.
"We protected the ball and had explosive plays this year," Mullens said. "That's what we didn't do today."
The decisive blow for USM came when WKU's Prince Iworah picked off Mullens with 12:24 left in the game.
WKU followed with an 11-play, 82-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by De'Andre Ferby to give the Hilltoppers a 45-28 lead with 5:01 remaining.
The score capped a 24-0 run for Western Kentucky, which will likely face South Florida in the Dec. 21 Miami Beach Bowl.
USM gave the 1,000 fans who made the trip to Bowling Green reason to cheer when Kalan Reed returned an interception of Doughty 40 yards for a touchdown at the 9:46 mark of the second quarter to make it 21-7. The score capped a 21-0 run for the Golden Eagles, which also included a 2-yard touchdown run by Jalen Richard and a 5-yard touchdown toss from Mullens to Mike Thomas.
WKU responded with a pair of scores, including a 2-yard touchdown toss from Doughty to Taylor with 11 seconds left in the first half to tie the game at 21-21 at the half.
USM regained the lead at 28-21 on a 37-yard touchdown run by Ito Smith with 12:04 left in the third quarter.
Southern Miss led 28-24 when WKU's Wonderful Terry recovered a Jalen Richard fumble with 3:35 remaining in the third quarter. WKU again converted the turnover into points when Doughty threw a 39-yard touchdown to Taylor to give the Hilltoppers a 31-28 advantage at the 1:19 mark of the third quarter.
WKU never trailed again in the game.
"We just had to settle down, myself included," Doughty said. "I didn't play well first half. I pride myself on taking care of the ball and I didn't do that. We had to settle down. I thought we did that and we came out victory."
Smith joined Richard in the 1,000-yard club this season and Mullens also hit 4,000 yards passing. That makes USM just the second team with a quarterback who has thrown for 4,000 yards and two running backs with 1,000 yards in the same season. The 2008 Oklahoma team is the only other squad to do it.