The 2022 LendingTree Bowl matchup was as ordinary of a bowl matchup as possible on paper. It pitted two longtime C-USA rivals, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and Rice Owls against each other, and the two opponents squared off in each of the eight previous seasons.
But what transpired in Mobile, AL on Saturday night was anything but ordinary. It featured an occurrence which had never been accomplished before in the storied history of bowl season. Southern Miss running back Frank Gore Jr. put on a showcase of a lifetime, exploding for 329 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in a jaw-dropping performance. Gore’s 329 rushing yards set a multitude of records in the Golden Eagles’ 38-24 victory over Rice.
For one, it marked the most single-game rushing yards by any player in the 2022 season. Additionally, it shattered the Southern Miss school rushing record. But most importantly, Gore became the standalone record-holder for most rushing yards in bowl history — surpassing Appalachian State running back Camerun Peoples, who piled on 319 yards in the 2020 Myrtle Beach Bowl.
But Gore’s impact Saturday night extended beyond his historic rushing numbers. The star running back also fired an 18-yard passing touchdown to tie the game at 24 apiece in the third quarter. Although his touchdown dime covered considerable ground, it was considerably his shortest scoring play of the game. Gore broke off for a 64-yard touchdown run in the early second quarter and iced the game on a 55-yard breakaway carry in the waning minutes of the contest.
Gore justifiably won LendingTree MVP honors for the most productive outing by a running back in bowl history. Riding the star running back’s unforgettable night, Southern Miss attained its first bowl victory since 2016 under second-year head coach Will Hall.
With Gore dominating the Rice rushing defense, Hall and his staff didn’t utilize the passing game often, but when they did, it was explosive. Starting quarterback Trey Lowe only completed seven of his 16 passes, but those seven completions went a long way, cashing in for 170 yards. Lowe opened the scoring effort for the evening on a touchdown pass to Jakarius Caston — who obtained a game-high 94 receiving yards. Then he delivered the go-ahead strike to Jason Brownlee in the early fourth quarter to provide Southern Miss a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
On the other sideline, Rice trotted out true freshman quarterback AJ Padgett, who was buried on the depth chart until a slew of injuries inserted him into the Owls’ penultimate regular season game. The LendingTree Bowl was Padgett’s second career start, and the young quarterback rose to the occasion despite a lack of experience. Padgett fired for 295 yards and three touchdowns without an interception — putting on an absolute clinic in the third quarter to hand Rice a brief 24-17 lead.
The Owls received the ball at halftime staring down a 17-3 deficit. But Padgett delivered three passing touchdowns, all with plenty of air on his throws. He connected twice with Isaiah Esdale in the end zone, once from 26 yards out and again from 32, to give the West Virginia transfer his first two scoring receptions of the season. After tying the game on his second touchdown to Esdale, Padgett handed the Owls a 24-17 lead on an 18-yard back-shoulder fade to Brad Rozner for paydirt. All three of those touchdowns on the 21-0 run were registered within the first 10 minutes of the third quarter.
After Gore tied the score at 24 on an explosive run, Rice’s offense began to stall. The Owls’ final five drives featured three punts, a turnover on downs, and an interception by backup quarterback Shawqi Itraish — who checked in after Padgett exited with an injury on the final series. But it was the turnover on downs which was especially critical on a possession where the Owl offense reached as far as the Southern Miss 9-yard line. On the fourth down, head coach Mike Bloomgren elected to go for the tie instead of kicking a field goal, but Padgett’s pass to Rozner was broken up by Eric Scott Jr.
Gore’s late touchdown scamper with 2:57 remaining was the punishing blow which separated the former C-USA rivals for good. Southern Miss then enjoyed the icing on the cake of an outstanding performance when free safety Jay Stanley hauled in a crunch-time interception from Itraish to catapult the Golden Eagles into victory formation.
Rice, the only team to enter bowl season with a losing record, ends its season at 5-8. The Owls finally shattered a lengthy bowl drought in the most prosperous run of the Bloomgren era, but the program sets its sight on loftier goals in the future. Rice remains in search of its first 6-win campaign since 2014 heading into 2023.
Southern Miss finishes the 2022 campaign at 7-6 to secure its first winning record since 2019. The Golden Eagles captured their first bowl win in six years in front of a passionate crowd of black and gold, many of which made the drivable trip from Hattiesburg, MS to support the team. Southern Miss celebrated on the field with the trophy to recognize the hard-fought victory, and when that commemorative LendingTree Bowl banner hangs on campus in Hattiesburg, it will always be associated with the night Frank Gore Jr. changed the course of bowl history.