Southern Miss jumped out to a fast 14-0 start against Louisiana-Lafayette in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The Golden Eagles started the game, by senior quarterback Nick Mullens hitting junior wide receiver Allenzae Staggers for back-to-back 50-plus yard catches in the first two opening drives.
After being set up in the red zone consecutive times, junior running back Ito Smith then picked up two back-to-back touchdowns on each drive.
Staggers’ second catch of 66 yards put him over 1,000 yards on the season and helped him total over 200 yards in the first half alone. The Golden Eagle defense also set an early tone with senior defensive lineman Ja’Boree Poole’s three sacks, a New Orleans Bowl record.
“It was a hard fought battle [and] certainly a lot of back and forths,” said Head Coach Jay Hopson. “Our guys certainly fought through 60 [minutes]. We made some big plays and they made some big plays.”
Yet, as fast as their start was the Golden Eagles found themselves stumbling after ULL quarterback Anthony Jennings ran for a four-yard touchdown. A series of poor penalties that totaled to 131 yards at the end of night set the Golden Eagles back both offensively and defensively.
These penalties gave ULL easy first downs throughout the entire second quarter.The Golden Eagles were forced to attempt a 38-yard field goal but missed it which fueling their problems.The Golden Eagles compiled several unnecessary roughness calls and false starts to help give ULL their second touchdown on the night tying the game, 14-14.
ULL’s success came primarily through the ground as they picked up 113 rushing yards in the first half. ULL found itself looking to cash in on another drive but an interception from Golden Eagle defensive back Tarvarius Moore managed to keep things even.
Injuries began to plague ULL forcing the Cajuns to start second string players for the remainder of the game. This helped Golden Eagles develop a steady drive that resulted in Mullens finding Staggers for a five-yard touchdown pass putting them in the lead in the 3 quarter at 21-14.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Golden Eagles began to eat time off of the clock by cashing in on a 6:14 drive. Smith punched in his third touchdown of the night from the one-yard line which extended the Golden Eagle lead to 28-14. Smith moved himself to third all-time in career all-purpose yards after his 144-yard game.
As the Golden Eagles were beginning to put away the Ragin’ Cajuns, Mullens threw an interception that was returned for 53 yards taking ULL inside the Southern Miss 10-yard line. Jennings helped bring the Ragin’ Cajuns back in the game after another rush, resulting in his second touchdown that made the score 28-21.
The Golden Eagles looked to finish the job after a failed onside kick from ULL, but they stopped the Golden Eagle drive. This gave ULL one last opportunity to stage a comeback with 2:02 left on the clock. However, all hopes of a comeback ended with Poole’s pressure that resulted in the failure of a fourth and seven conversion that helped the Golden Eagles get the win.
Staggers, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl MVP, broke the bowls’ record of receiving yards in a game with 230 and the record for catches in a game with 11. Staggers finished the night as the only player in Southern Miss history to have two 200-yard receiving games. Notably, Mullens finished his historical career with a 146.7 quarterback rating, two touchdowns and broke the New Orleans Bowl passing record with 346 yards.
“There’s no team I’ve ever been prouder of,” Hopson said. “This is a team that battled through a lot, but to finish like this is a special feeling for all of us. I just feel very blessed.”
The record breaking performances helped the Golden Eagles finished the season at 7-6 and take home their first bowl game win since 2011.