Southern Miss

Southern Miss hosts La. Tech in need of win for bowl bid

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith scores a touchdown against Charlotte on Nov. 5 at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith scores a touchdown against Charlotte on Nov. 5 at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. ttisbell@sunherald.com

The Southern Miss football season can end with a whimper Friday in Hattiesburg or the Golden Eagles can live to see another day with an upset.

USM (5-6, 3-4) hosts Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) at 3 p.m. in a regular-season finale set to be broadcast on ESPNews.

If USM wins, it can earn bowl eligibility. If it loses, the season comes to an end.

It’s a game that was pitched early on as a contest that would again likely decide the Conference USA West, but Louisiana Tech clinched the division title on Nov. 12. If the Bulldogs win Friday, they’ll host Western Kentucky in the C-USA title game in Shreveport on Dec. 3 because of the renovation of Tech’s stadium in Ruston.

If Tech loses and Western Kentucky beats Marshall, the C-USA title game will be at WKU.

USM and Tech are headed in opposite directions as the regular season comes to a close. USM stumbles in with five losses in its last six games while Louisiana Tech is riding a seven-game win streak.

USM again faces uncertainty at quarterback with senior Nick Mullens still recovering from a concussion he suffered on Nov. 5 against Charlotte. He returned to practice this week, but USM coach Jay Hopson will have to make another late decision on whether to play him Friday.

If he is unable to go, USM will again rely on true freshman Keon Howard, who has started the last two games.

Howard has completed 44 percent of his passes for 365 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. He has run 40 times for 138 yards and a score.

Turnovers have been a significant problem for Howard, who was originally set to receive a redshirt this season.

“He’s a guy who is a competitor,” Hopson said. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of his effort. I’m proud of his fight. He keeps coming back. He’s a ballplayer. It’s just part of football and that’s something we just have to keep digging and keep fighting.”

USM shocked Louisiana Tech 58-24 in Ruston last year with Mullens completing 24 of 37 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Ito Smith also had a big game, rushing 22 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns.

The win sent USM to the C-USA title game and gained momentum for the Golden Eagle football program.

That game hasn’t been forgotten by the Louisiana Tech players. Senior receiver Trent Taylor told The Shreveport Times that he wants to “embarrass” USM on Friday.

USM will face a potent Louisiana Tech offense that is averaging 45.8 points a game. Senior quarterback Ryan Higgins has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,460 yards, 34 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

Higgins has a pair of gifted receivers in Taylor and redshirt junior Carlos Henderson. Taylor has 103 catches for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns. Henderson has 61 catches for 1,179 yards and 16 scores.

“A very talented football team. A lot of playmakers at receiver, running back and the quarterback position,” Hopson said. “They are that team and I don’t see a lot of weaknesses.”

Game plan

Who: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Miss

When: 3 p.m. Friday

Where: M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: ESPNews

Radio: 104.9-FM

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