Eagles well on their way to bowl eligibility

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Southern Miss defensive back Curtis Mikell returning a punt against Mississippi State in Hattiesburg on Saturday night.

Southern Miss stands just one win away from bowl eligibility, but it’s important to ask: how did they get here?

The first glimmer of hope for this Golden Eagle football team came long before this season.

Just two years ago, Southern Miss was struggling to capture just one win, in two seasons. In 2012, the Golden Eagles finished 0-12.

The next season, Southern Miss was 0-11 and well on their way to being back in the college football cellar, until they exploded for a 62-27 victory against UAB, their first win since the 2011 Hawaii

Bowl three years prior. That single game planted a seed of resilience for these Golden Eagles as players such as Nick Mullens, Jalen Richard and Elijah Parker tasted victory for the first time.

Fast forward to last year, and Southern Miss got off to a decent start. The Golden Eagles won three games in 2014, but crumbled when Mullens got hurt on the first drive against Louisiana Tech. The team morale was crushed and those Golden Eagles never recovered that season, losing five straight to end the season. But the Golden Eagles showed their resilience and drive to get back to the top when the 2015 campaign kicked off.

Coming into the season, all of the hype building up was up for climax against a Mississippi State team that embarrassed Southern Miss 49-0 last year in Starkville. This season, Southern Miss came out to play by at least being competitive, losing 34-16 in a game that was truly closer than the score indicated.

After that game, USM came out to beat Austin Peay 52-6 in a game where Monken questioned the support of the Golden Eagle hopefuls, even though 23,042 seats were filled in the contest.

The next week, Southern Miss traveled to Texas to take on the Texas State Bobcats in a classic shootout. Both defenses failed to show any resistance in the contest, giving up a combined 106 points in the game, which USM won 56-50.

The first sign of real improvement over the years was a late September contest in Lincoln, Nebraska, against a Cornhusker team who historically has dominated the boys down in Hattiesburg. USM gave the Cornhuskers all it had, with junior quarterback Nick Mullens throwing for a career-high 447 yards as they almost took down Nebraska in the final moments.

In their next four games, Southern Miss has compiled a 3-1 record, dominating North Texas, UTSA and Charlotte, giving up a combined 34 points total in those three games. But an Oct. 9 game in West Virginia against Marshall showed some flaws that the Golden Eagles have seen over the years.

Turnovers, not being able to get off the field defensively on third downs and red zone scoring are still problems. The Golden Eagles lost that contest 31-10, but learned from those mistakes en route to winning their next two games against UTSA and Charlotte. From D’Nerius Antoine to the emergence of Mike Thomas, the Golden Eagles have a newfound confidence instilled in them. These Golden Eagles are doing something that they may have not been doing since 2011: Believing in themselves.

“In our first year when we beat UAB, the great thing was we ended the season on a win,” said head coach Todd Monken. “The negative was we didn’t get to play again the next week. We didn’t get to benefit from the excitement of winning.”Now here they are. Only mere days away from potentially becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, a season in which the Golden Eagles peaked at No. 19 in the final coach’s poll of the year in America.USM has a chance to reach heights not seen since Larry Fedora left for North Carolina. Now is time for coach Todd Monken to put his stamp on this program, along with those players who captured that first win against UAB, and those that came along in the mean time to join this adventure.

Oh how far these Golden Eagles have come.