USM wins Western Division crown, 58-24
Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken could not have said it better.
“Sometimes things just go your way,” Monken said. “A lot of things went our way. We’ve had plenty of things that haven’t gone our way, and it’s about time.”
And boy did things go Southern Miss’ way, as the Golden Eagles demolished rival Louisiana Tech, 58-24, in a game most thought would come down to the wire.
The first half was dominated by USM on both sides of the ball, thanks to aggressive coaching by Monken. Up 14-3, Monken called for his signature onside kick, and USM took advantage with one of the most spectacular plays in USM history.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch that landed Thomas in the SportsCenter Top 10 plays. The catch gave USM a 21-3 lead and all the momentum.
A few minutes later, La. Tech coughed up the ball on a punt, which allowed a Stephen Brauchle field goal. But that turnover before the half would start a chain reaction of turnovers that followed in the second half.
Going into halftime with a 24-10 lead, the Golden Eagles had complete control. That is, until Bulldog quarterback Jeff Driskel hit running back Kenneth Dixon on a 43-yard swing pass for a touchdown, and suddenly the dominant first half Southern Miss played was cut down to just a one score lead.
But then it happened. Twenty- seven unanswered points—21 of those within 45 seconds—and three Bulldog turnovers gave USM a 51-17 lead with 14:41 left in the game.
Terrick Wright, who stepped in for the injured Elijah Parker, was the main catalyst. Wright ended up with a fumble recovery and an interception in that span.
“Really, I was just trying to do something for the team, trying to make the team better,” Wright said. “Knowing that we need a big play, before I stepped out on the field, I talked to my brothers Mike Smith and (Brian Anderson) and we said we need a big play no matter where it comes from.”
Ito Smith, who had a career day, deserves credit as well. Smith had three carries after those three turnovers and turned them into three consecutive touchdowns. Smith finished with 164 rushing yards on the day.
Defensive coordinator Dave Duggan said he had never seen anything like the 21-point sequence in his coaching career.
“I haven’t been a part of anything like that,” Duggan said.
“I was about to go over to Todd (Monken) and Chip (Lindsey) and tell them slow it down, give us a blow, our guys were sucking wind. It was crazy, just a crazy turn of events. I don’t think I’ve seen that before in my coaching career.”
However, Southern Miss was not done. A late Bulldog touchdown could not dampen USM’s spirited defensive play, as Devonta Foster pushed the lead even further with a pick-six to give USM the lead, 58-24.
La. Tech finished with six turnovers—four interceptions and two fumbles.
USM had key injuries in the game with Kalan Reed, Anthony Swain and Elijah Parker all going down in the first half. But the Golden Eagles did not need them as they held Dixon and the vaunted Bulldog rushing attack to negative two yards rushing.
Building a lead on La. Tech and forcing Driskel and the Bulldog offense to be one-dimensional allowed USM to stay in its nickel package all game.
Yet to smile, Monken knows his team has yet to reach the pinnacle of their season. One more challenge stands in the way: Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers blasted Marshall, 49-28, for the Eastern Division championship in Conference USA.
“It’s about getting bowl- eligible,” Monken said. “That’s the barometer (of) your program, and then the second part is (this): how do you win the West? Now we have to go back on the road. We knew that was going to be the case. If you want to win it, you have to do it on the road. We’ll be ready this week. We’ll expect their best, and they sure as heck can expect ours.”
Southern Miss travels to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to square off with Western Kentucky for the Conference USA Championship. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m.