Southern Miss had to play a near-perfect game against rival Louisiana Tech as the Bulldogs came in with an 8 – 3 record. While holding them to eight yards rushing, the USM defense and the offense handled the La. Tech attack, 39 – 24.
“We were in our darkest hour, and everybody on this football team came out with a positive attitude,” said Head Coach Jay Hopson. “I’m just blessed to be a part of these young men. It’s been a long, tough road but a great finish.”
Knowing the magnitude of the situation, Southern Miss did not pull any stops as they slotted senior quarterback Nick Mullens at receiver with freshman Keon Howard at the quarterback position. Mullens was making his first return of the season from injury.
“It’s fun,” Mullens said, referencing the few plays he lined up at receiver. “You always hear quarterbacks have to be great receivers coaches. It’s fun. It was a great time.”
Mullens as receiver worked on the first drive of the game as Southern Miss used both QBs on the drive. Howard took the ball from nine yards out to score the first touchdown of the game.
“Coach [Hopson] preaches 11 brothers are hard to beat,” Hopson said. “Everyone had to step up in their own different way. I thought that first drive [was the] perfect plan. Keon’s obviously talented in the run game. These coaches had a great plan, and the players trusted that.”
The Golden Eagles pulled out their stops, and La. Tech mirrored this action.
Mullens went to pass early in the second quarter but was stripped. The Bulldogs recovered the fumble. As Secdrick Cooper returned for the score, he lateraled behind his head at the 31-yard line to Xavier Woods, who took it in to put La. Tech up 14 – 10 with 14:07 in the second quarter.
With a stout defense, Southern Miss got back on top of La. Tech by forcing a three-and-out near the end of the first half. USM scored on a Mullens to senior receiver D.J. Thompson pass play for eight yards, during which Mullens was in place of the all-time record for passing touchdowns with 84.
Heading into the half, Southern Miss led the Bulldogs 23 – 17 while also limiting La. Tech to a single rushing yard in the period. USM outgunned La. Tech 300 yards to 139. La. Tech was down six points.
“Coaches came up with a great gameplan,” said junior running back Ito Smith. “We went out there and executed [it].”
The USM defense led the Golden Eagles at the beginning of the second half as a fumbled snap went over the head of senior punter Tyler Sarrazin for a loss of 37 yards, pitting La. Tech at the USM 12-yard line for easy field position.
The Golden Eagle defense held the Bulldogs to four plays in the red zone for a single yard with a fourth down stop by senior linebacker Elijah Parker on 4th and 1 with USM holding a six-point lead.
“We kept fighting really,” said junior defensive back Picasso Nelson, Jr. “This week, we wanted to just give it our all. Regardless of how I feel, I wanted to give my all [to the seniors].”
The offense answered that drive with an 8-of-8 passing performance by Mullens, during which he threw for 64 yards and a touchdown to receiver Korey Robertson. With the return of the senior quarterback, the offense amassed 431 total yards in the season finale.
“Players trusted coaches,” Mullens said. “Big stops, energy on the sideline. Everything you ask to be successful, that’s what we did.”
The return of Mullens caused the offense to bloom. Thompson is another Golden Eagle who made a return to the field for the first time since the homecoming contest against Marshall. His return was to the tune of 12 receptions (an M.M. Roberts Stadium record), 135 yards and two touchdowns.
“I hated missing all those games,” Thompson said. “They [talked trash and,] personally, I didn’t like that. I know where their emotions were. We just wanted to play ball.”
Southern Miss now awaits to see if they are invited to a bowl game to complete their season.