Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens had special reasons to enter Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl game with ambitions to excel.
The four-year starter had faced two difficult injuries and missed two games late in the season. He was finally healthy and eager to show why he was an All-Conference USA quarterback and the highest PFF-rated long ball passer in the nation entering the 2016 season..
How did he do?
Well, it took him exactly one touch of the ball to get things started. He took the first snap, retreated three steps and completed a 55-yard pass down the middle to Allenzae Staggers. Two carries by Ito Smith put the Golden Eagles into the end zone and on their way to a 28-21 win over UL-Lafayette at the Mercedes-Benz Dome in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Two minutes later, Southern Mississippi had the ball back and once again on the first snap, Mullens found Staggers in the middle, this time for a 66-yard completion. And, once again in just two plays, USM was in the end zone and in the lead 14-0.
But, the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t surrender. Instead, they used USM penalties and a costly turnover to storm back and tie the score 14-14 at halftime.
The Golden Eagles received the second half kickoff and patiently drove the ball 75-yards in 12 plays to take the lead for good via a five yard touchdown pass from Mullens to Staggers in the middle of the end zone.
However, with 2:02 remaining and USM ahead 28-21, UL-Lafayette had the ball and one last opportunity to tie the game. Beginning on their own 18 yard line, the Ragin’ Cajuns ran nine plays but could only advance to the Golden Eagles’ 48 yard line before turning the ball over on downs.
Mullens finished the night going 25-40 for 346 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception for the Golden Eagles while Staggers finished with 11 receptions for 230 yards and one touchdown.
No one in ULL’s secondary could cover Staggers as his 230 receiving yards is now a New Orleans Bowl record. Ito Smith added 138 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
Tonight’s game was a microcosm for the Southern Miss season. Their offense was balanced all night, players put up huge numbers and yet the Golden Eagles couldn’t quite put away the Cajuns until the end of the game. Mental lapses in bad penalties and turnovers had been their undoing all season and almost costed them again.
Fortunately the defense turned in a great performance. UL-Lafayette’s offensive line had difficulty containing USM’s pass rush. As a result, quarterback Anthony Jennings never seemed comfortable and was just 8-20 for 95 yards and one interception through the air. Heralded running back Elijah McGuire was also hampered by poor line play but was able to gain 99 yards on 17 carries.
Mullens finished his career as the Golden Eagles’ all time passing leader eclipsing marks held by Hall of Fame alumnus Brett Favre. He’s absolutely one of three best quarterbacks in USM history (Favre and Austin Davis).
Prior to the game, Mullens commented about USM’s inconsistent season and the struggles he had to overcome. “It’s really a humbling experience. Nothing in a college career is ever going to go perfect.”
In Jay Hopson’s first season Southern Mississippi will finish the season with a 7-6 record. The win gave them their first bowl victory since the 2011 Hawaii Bowl. UL-Lafayette will finish 6-7 after posting four straight wins to become bowl-eligible.