Southern Miss (6-3, 4-1 Conference USA) is bowl eligible for the first time in three years. Southern Miss dominated the UTEP Miners 34-13 in a rainy, defensive slugfest. Even after a lengthy rain delay, there was no denying the Golden Eagles’ victory over the Miners.
“I thought our team did what it needed to do to win,” said Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken. “We haven’t been perfect yet, which is a good sign. You win by three touchdowns and leave points on the board. I’m happy for our seniors to get to (win) number six and put us in a position. We don’t have anything yet, but to be able to put us in position for a bowl game, which should be the standard here, it’s why I wanted to be the head coach here.”
Early on however, UTEP seemed to control most of the game through a ball control offense and fantastic defense. The game seemed to mirror the 2014 version. However, a key drive right before halftime seemed to bolster Southern Miss’ confidence and dampen that of the Miners.
A 38-yard run by Jalen Richard and a 26-yard catch by Michael Thomas put USM at the UTEP 4-yard line. Two plays later, Nick Mullens completed a touchdown pass to Richard to increase the lead to two scores.
After halftime, the Golden Eagles picked up where they left off and added a touchdown in the third quarter. Mullens connected with D.J. Thompson for a 27- yard strike. Then, in the fourth quarter, Thompson added his second touchdown reception of the game, this one for 11 yards.
“I want nine wins,” Thompson said. “Simple as that. I was telling them earlier, we set a lot of standards for ourselves: a bowl game, winning season, conference championship and things of that nature, and we (are) really just marking everything off the list.”
Then the hour-and-27- minute rain delay began. After the rain delay was up, UTEP took the ensuing kickoff and marched right down the field on a cold Golden Eagle defense. LaQuintus Donald ran it in for the Miners and cut the Southern Miss lead to just two scores, 27-13.
The rain delay was a huge factor in the game, as only a handful of fans remained in the stadium and the players felt it on the field. Southern Miss’ defense was slowed by the delay, according to Monken, but that did not hinder the offense.
Southern Miss needed a spark after the Miners came out of the delay firing on all cylinders. USM drove to the Miner 10-yard line, but were held to a field goal attempt. But, Monken, known for his aggressive play calling, called a fake field goal and Tyler Sarrazin walked into the end zone to ice the game, 34-13.
“We had (the fake field goal) ready for last week,” Monken said. “It just never came up. We went unbalanced into the boundary and they’re a field block team, so we got more than they got if they don’t adjust to it, and that’s on coach Wozniak.”
The Golden Eagles’ offense was true to form, despite starting a little slow, but still managed 34 points. Mullens tossed four touchdowns without an interception while Richard and Ito Smith both went over 100 yards on the ground. Richard had 129 yards and two touchdowns on the ground with another receiving and Smith had 104 yards on just carries, good for an 11.6 yard average.
Thompson continued to prove himself as a dynamic threat opposite of Thomas with two touchdowns and 112 yards on 10 catches while Thomas had 84 yards and a touchdown on four catches.
While Southern Miss is known for their offense, it should be noted that their defense has come to the forefront in recent weeks. In the last four weeks, they have not given up over 300 yards.
The Golden Eagles have a bye week coming up before three huge games against Rice, Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech. Monken said he had only one thing to say to the fans when his team returned to play Old Dominion on Nov. 21: come to the games.
“If I could pay for all the tickets and not go broke, I would pay for all the tickets,” Monken said. “To get everybody here, because our players deserve it. If you want to come and boo, come and boo. We need you here.”
“(Come) for our guys, especially the guys that never redshirted,” Monken continued. “They (spent) four years of grinding it out and stayed, because there’s a lot of guys that didn’t. There’s a lot of guys that didn’t believe or do the right things, didn’t buy into me and didn’t buy into our coaches and didn’t buy into this university and they were flat out wrong. Shame on them, for not being here at this time, and they’re kicking themselves at home.”