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USM routs Bulldogs, headed to C-USA Championship Game

RUSTON, La. -- After three seasons of irrelevance, the Southern Miss football program is back to being one of the bullies in Conference USA.

The Golden Eagles put up 27 unanswered points in the span of 3 and a half minutes in the second half to pull away for a 58-24 victory at Louisiana Tech Saturday in a game that decided the Conference USA West.

The Golden Eagles have won six straight games and are 9-3 and headed to the C-USA title game at 11 a.m. on Dec. 5 at Western Kentucky.

USM never trailed in Saturday's contest and turned three consecutive turnovers into three rushing touchdowns by Ito Smith in the first minute of the fourth quarter. The game was out of hand at that point with USM leading 51-17 with 13:56 remaining.

"A lot of things went our way," USM coach Todd Monken said. "If you play hard enough and believe, sometimes things go your way. We've had plenty of things not go our way. It's about time."

The USM players celebrated the victory in front of about 3,000 USM fans who made the trek to Ruston in dreary, wet weather.

The win served as a shot in the arm for a program that went 4-32 over the three previous seasons.

"It's just a great feeling," Smith said. "Southern Miss is back on top where it's supposed to be."

The win didn't come without adversity as three of USM's defensive starters went down with injuries in the first half - linebacker Anthony Swain, cornerback Kalan Reed and linebacker Elijah Parker.

USM's improved depth showed up in those starters' absence with the defense holding La. Tech's star running back, Kenneth Dixon, to negative-4 yards on eight carries.

"We were going to load the box and make sure he wasn't going to get out of there," USM defensive coordinator Dave Duggan said. "Our guys just played hard. Our offense got up on them and made it to where they couldn't run him. They had to keep throwing. It was easier to keep him under wraps."

Louisiana Tech turned the ball over seven times on Saturday.

The run of three consecutive turnovers by Louisiana Tech (8-4, 6-2) began on the first play of the fourth quarter when Dixon's fumble was recovered by USM senior linebacker Terrick Wright.

On the next play, Smith ran 57 yards for the touchdown.

Louisiana Tech gave it back again when Wright stepped in front of a Jeff Driskel pass for an interception and returned the ball 22 yards to the USM 17.

"The second one was straight from God. It was gifted wrapped," Wright said.

On the next play, Smith ran 17 yards for the touchdown.

The third turnover happened when Trent Taylor pulled in a pass in the backfield and promptly fumbled. USM defensive back Picasso Nelson was there to recover.

On the next play, Smith ran 11 yards for a touchdown.

"I haven't been part of anything like that," Duggan said. "I was going over to (Monken) and (offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey) asking them to slow it down and give us a blow. Our guys were sucking wind. It was crazy turn of events. I don't think I've ever seen that in my coaching career."

While Louisiana Tech struggled to get all of its weapons going Saturday, USM had no problem getting each of its offensive stars involved.

USM junior quarterback Nick Mullens completed 24-of-37 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.

He and senior receiver Mike Thomas connected on several nice passing plays, but none was more impressive than the catch that Thomas made to give USM a 21-3 lead with 10:06 left in the second quarter.

Thomas reached high to pull in the pass with one hand and barely managed to get a foot in the back of the end zone before falling out. It was far from the lone big play from Thomas, who caught seven passes for 162 yards and one touchdown.

"It means a lot," Thomas said of the C-USA West title. "Our hard work is definitely paying off. The goal at beginning of the year was to leave school with a ring on my finger. We're just dream chasing and we're closer than ever."