They got their quarterback back. They got their receiver back. They got their swagger back.
They got a win over the Conference USA West Division champion and, in all probability, they got a bowl.
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles, losers of five of their past six games, got all that with a resounding 39-24 victory over the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at M.M. Roberts Stadium on Friday.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a football team in my life,” said first-year Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson, whose Eagles finished the regular season with a 6-6 overall record and a 4-4 conference mark. “These are true Golden Eagles, they're going to fight to the end. They played Southern Miss football tonight.”
One reason for their success was the return of quarterback Nick Mullens, who had missed 2 1/2 games while under concussion protocol. He completed 29 of 33 passes, with one dropped, for 342 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
After the game, some of Mullens’ teammates picked him up and gave him a little ride.
“It felt like a dream,” the four-year starter said. “I love football. I hope people could see that tonight.”
Twelve of Mullen’s completions, for 135 yards and two TDs, went to D.J. Thompson, who also had missed action because of injury. That was the most receptions ever for Thompson. It tied the Roberts Stadium record of 12 set by Tyre’oune Holmes set in 2013 and was only one away from the school record of 13 set by Sherrod Gideon in 1998.
“It was a fun day,” Thompson said.
Thompson told Hopson early in the week that USM would win, and based some of it on the fact that it takes six wins to become bowl-eligible. Then he told his teammates something.
“I don’t care if we go to Jackson, Mississippi, to a bowl game and go to the mall,” he said. “A bowl game is a vacation for all that hard work.”
The game went back and forth throughout the first half and part of the second, before two interceptions by Picasso Nelson Jr. and another by Cornell Armstrong helped put away the 8-4 Bulldogs, who had won seven games in a row before Friday.
After taking the opening kickoff, Southern Miss showed quickly that it was going to pull out all the stops. Three people took snaps — Mullens, Keon Howard and Ito Smith — and USM got first downs from three Tech penalties, but while Mullens connected with DJ Thompson on a couple of passes, it was Howard who scored from 4 yards out with 10:41 to play in the first quarter.
Louisiana Tech fumbled on its first offensive play, but a 40-yard pass on its second and soon, Jarred Craft scored from 3 yards out with 6:08 left in the opening quarter. Jonathan Barnes kicked the extra point to tie the game 7-7.
D’Nerius Antoine returned the kickoff 54 yards to the Tech 46 and the Golden Eagles moved the ball downfield on passes to Thompson and Smith. But the drive stalled on the 4m and Brauchle kicked a 21-yard field goal to make it 10-7, USM.
Disaster struck for the home team on its next possession as Mullens fumbled trying to pass. The ball was recovered by Tech’s Secdrick Cooper, who lateraled to Xavier Woods at the 31, who ran into the end zone for a touchdown and the Bulldogs led 14-10 with 14:12 to play in the second quarter.
USM got out of a hole at the 9-yard line when Mullens hit Staggers for 38 yards to the Tech 43. Then he hit Thompson for 21 yards for a touchdown with 9:40 to go in first half. It was Mullens’ 83rd touchdown pass of his career, tying him with Austin Davis for first place on the all-time USM list. Brauchle’s kick gave USM a 17-14 lead.
After a Tech punt, USM played “Give it to Smith, pass it to Smith.” Then Thompson caught two passes, the last one for 8 yards and a score. That put Mullens atop the school list for most TD passes with 84. The kick was blocked, but USM led 23-14 with 3:14 to play in the first half.
But the Bulldogs responded, marching downfield inside the 10 before a fumble forced a 31-yard field goal by Barnes with 36 second left until halftime, making it 23-17, Southern Miss at the half.
In the first half, Mullens was 17 of 20 for 217 yards.
After linebacker Elijah Parker stopped Tech on a fourth-and-1 for a loss of 7, Mullens stayed hot, hitting Thompson for 26 and 9 yards and Korey Robertson in the end zone for 6. The 2-point try failed, leaving USM with a 29-17 lead with 1:19 left in the third quarter.
A Picasso Nelson Jr. interception at the Tech 36 set up a Brauchle field goal from 25 yards out with 7:48 to go in the game, giving USM at 32-17 lead.
Another Nelson Jr. interception and return gave USM the ball at the Tech 1 and four plays later, Mullens sneaked in for a TD to make it 39-17.
“I tapped Nick and said, ‘Hey, right behind me and Brandon (Farmer),’” offensive lineman Wil Freeman said.
That clinched the victory. Tech scored late, but the game was over by then.
“I don’t know how many games I’ll remember,” Freeman said, “but I’ll remember this one.”