HATTIESBURG — Something brought the Southern Miss Golden Eagles to life Friday when they knocked off Conference USA powerhouse Louisiana Tech 39-24.
The Golden Eagles totaled 431 offensive yards and limited Louisiana Tech to only 8 yards rushing. And they played, from the first play to the last, with enthusiasm.
Sure, the return of previously-injured quarterback Nick Mullens helped, as he completed 29 of 33 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns.
Yes, the return of previously-injured wide receiver D.J. Thompson helped, as he caught 12 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
No doubt, knowing that a win meant going to a bowl played a key role, too.
Plus, it was Senior Day for 20 players.
Add them together and Southern Miss played its best game of the season.
But there was something else, too, that helped give the Golden Eagles their edge. Something you might not think would play a role with college age young men, but it evidently did. The Golden Eagles got mad when they heard comments made by Tech players.
“I want to end their season,” Tech safety Xavier Woods told a Monroe, La., newspaper reporter the week of the game.
And wide receiver Trent Taylor said he wanted to “embarrass” USM for beating the Bulldogs last season.
It was just talk, but the Southern Miss players took it to heart.
“I never get mad, I never get (ticked) off,” offensive lineman Wil Freeman said. “But those guys ticked me off. Everything they had been talking about during the week made me angry. I don’t get very angry but talking about embarrassing us?
“I’m not worried about me. For me, it was when you talk about my brothers like that. Those guys are my brothers I would fight to the last breath for them. When you talk about my brothers like that, it’s going to be an all-out brawl. That’s kind of how we took that.”
Thompson got riled up by the Tech comments, too.
“I got the quotes they said taped to my locker,” he said. “That’s how serious I was. I looked at those quotes they said about us every day.”
Thompson said last year’s game between the two teams, when USM outscored Tech 27-7 in the fourth quarter in their 58-24 Conference USA West Division championship victory, didn’t sit well with the Tech players.
“We beat them pretty bad, ran up the score, but before that game we didn’t say anything,” Thompson said. “We just went in and played ball. That’s what we did before this game. We just went in and played ball.”
Well, there was some extracurricular activity going on. Tech was called for one personal foul and Southern Miss committed two personal fouls and also received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“With La-Tech and Southern Miss, there’s something about going on that field, it’s almost like a rivalry,” Thompson said. “But it was fun. It made us play harder. I would love for a team to talk like that every week if that’s how we’re going to play.”
Six Conference USA teams qualified, with at least a 6-6 record, to go to a bowl. C-USA is affiliated with six bowls, so all six C-USA teams who are bowl eligible will indeed go to a bowl.
Per Conference USA regulations, “all teams with seven or more wins shall be placed into conference bowls prior to any other bowl eligible teams without a winning record (i.e. 6-6 record).”
C-USA teams that will be playing in bowls are Western Kentucky (9-3), Old Dominion (9-3), Louisiana Tech (8-4), Middle Tennessee State (8-4), UTSA (6-6) and Southern Miss (6-6).
Conference USA-affiliated bowls are the Gildan New Mexico Bowl (Dec. 17), the R+I Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Dec. 17), the Boca Raton Bowl (Dec. 20), the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (Dec. 23), the Hawai’i Bowl (Dec. 24) and the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 27).
Conference USA bowl projections by Patrick Magee:
Boca Raton Bowl
Western Kentucky (9-3) vs. Memphis (8-4)
Hawaii (6-7) vs. Middle Tennessee (8-4)
Gildan New Mexico Bowl
UTSA (6-6) vs. New Mexico (8-4)
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl
Old Dominion (9-3) vs. Ohio (8-4)
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl
Louisiana Tech (8-4) vs. Colorado State (7-5)
R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Southern Miss (6-6) vs. Appalachian State (9-3)
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl
North Texas (5-7) vs. Idaho (7-4)