HATTIESBURG - A tornado warning and a long in-game weather delay couldn't dampen the spirits of the Southern Miss football team Saturday. The Golden Eagles are going bowling.
USM is eligible for the postseason for the first time since 2011 after beating UTEP 34-13 in a surreal Halloween contest at Roberts Stadium.
With Conference USA featuring seven bowl tie-ins this season, USM (6-3, 4-1) appears assured of a bid.
Running back Jalen Richard is among a group of seniors who are finally having a taste of winning football after going 4-32 over the last three seasons.
"It means a lot," Richard said of bowl eligibility. "It's an overwhelming feeling to just know that when you stick things out and go through what I've been through personally, now we can start afresh on a better and different path. It just feels great."
Redshirt junior receiver D.J. Thompson and the rest of his teammates aren't ready to settle for six wins and a bowl bid. USM remains tied for first place with Louisiana Tech (6-3, 4-1) in the C-USA West.
"I want nine wins," Thompson said. "Simple as that, I want nine wins. We set a lot of standards for ourselves, getting bowl eligible, winning a championship. We're really just marking everything off the list one by one. I'm excited to be bowl eligible, but I want a championship more than anything."
USM head coach Todd Monken seemed drained by the experience, but grateful that his program has taken another step.
"I like celebrating when it's over," Monken said. "I'm happy for our players, happy for our fans and happy for the whole university, my players and staff. I'll be happy when it's over. I'll have a chance to reflect, but I'm not very good at that."
Monken, who thanked those fans who endured the weather Saturday, again challenged USM supporters to show up for the team's next home game on Nov. 21 against Old Dominion.
"If I could pay for all the tickets and not go broke, I'd pay for the tickets to get everybody here because our players deserve it," the third-year coach said. "It's for our seniors, the guys that never redshirted and went four years of grinding it out and stayed. There are a lot of guys that didn't believe and didn't buy in. They were flat out wrong. Shame on them for not being here and celebrating. They're kicking themselves, but I could care less about them. I'm more excited about the guys that are in that room."
Southern Miss held UTEP (3-5, 1-3) to 298 yards of offense, marking the fourth consecutive game that the defense has held the opponent under 300 yards.
Southern Miss led 27-6 with 14:54 remaining in the game when officials put the game to a halt at 4:09 p.m. due to approaching severe weather. Soon after, the Hattiesburg area was placed under a tornado warning and the sirens sounded.
With heavy rain coming down, fans were moved into restrooms on the concourse for shelter.
The tornado warning was lifted around 5 p.m. with the delay lasting an hour and 27 minutes. The game resumed at 5:36 p.m.
During the break, the players kept moving and even took part in a dance contest that Monken had to put to an end.
"We stayed pumped, amped," said USM receiver Mike Thomas, who had four catches for 84 yards and a score. "We didn't want to have a lull in excitement."
UTEP dominated time of possession in the first half and USM appeared a little sluggish on offense early, but the Eagles grabbed the momentum headed into the half thanks to a quick scoring drive.
Mullens threw 9 yards to Jalen Richard for a touchdown with 15 seconds remaining to cap a three-play, 68-yard drive that lasted only 33 seconds and gave USM a 13-3 lead headed into the half. The drive included a 38-yard run by Richard and a 26-yard reception by Thomas.
USM closed strong with 21 points in the second half, including a pair of touchdown catches by D.J. Thompson and an 8-yard touchdown run by holder Tyler Sarrazin on a fake field goal with 6:45 left.
USM quarterback Nick Mullens continued his impressive pace Saturday, completing 23-of-33 for for 277 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
Thompson, a redshirt junior, had a career game, pulling in 10 catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
For the second time in three weeks, USM had two running backs go over 100 yards rushing. Richard ran 20 times for 127 yards and Ito Smith had nine carries for 104 yards.