Mullens returns, sparks huge USM upset

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Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens

Butch Dill, AP

Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens

HATTIESBURG — Louisiana Tech had won seven straight games by an average margin of 28 points per. Southern Miss had lost five of its last six, four by double-digit margins. Tech was a 15-point favorite.

Tech didn’t just expect to win Saturday’s game at The Rock. The Bulldogs wanted more. “We want to embarrass them,” Trent Taylor, Tech’s splendid wide receiver, said during an early week interview.

Didn’t happen. Not close. Southern Miss, with senior quarterback Nick Mullens and senior wide receiver D.J. Thompson in the lineup for the first time in weeks, walloped Tech 39-24 to become bowl eligible. If anything, it was more one-sided than the score indicates.

Tech rushed for only eight yards. USM out-gained the visitors 431 yards to 246. The Golden Eagles led 39-17 before Tech scored a garbage-time touchdown late.

Mullens, who hadn’t played in two and a half games because of a concussion suffered Nov. 5 at Charlotte, might have played the most perfect game of his record-breaking career.

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Cleared to play after passing concussion protocol tests on Monday, Mullens did his best Drew Brees imitation, completing 29 of 33 throws for 342 yards and three touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown running, sneaking in for the game-clinching touchdown with 2 minutes, 19 seconds remaining behind the blocking of senior guard Brandon Farmer and senior tackle Will Freeman. About 10 minutes later, Farmer and Freeman put Mullens on their shoulders and gave him a ride off the field. They put him down, just in time to receive congratulations from Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz, who surely is happy he never will have to face Mullens again.

Said Freeman, who converted from defensive tackle to offensive tackle for his senior season, “It was great to have Nick back. He’s such a great competitor and a great leader. I’ll tell you this much, it has been an honor for me to block for him.”

Thompson, another senior, also had a career game, catching 12 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. During the post-game, on-field celebration afterward, Thompson grabbed first-year head coach Jay Hopson, bear-hugged him and said, “I told you so, Coach, I told you so.”

Told him so?

“I told him early this week that I knew we were going to win,” Thompson said. “I just knew it. I can’t explain why, but I knew we were going to win. Man, I wanted to go to a bowl game. I don’t care if it’s in Jackson, Mississippi, and the entertainment is going to the mall. I just want to play in a bowl game.”

USM probably will go bowling although the Eagles will have to wait a while to learn their destination. Could be New Orleans. Could be Hawaii. Could be The Bahamas. Could be Boca Raton, or even New Mexico. The Eagles currently are one of five Conference USA teams that are bowl eligble. The league has six bowl tie-ins. North Texas State and UTSA play Saturday games, hoping to get their sixth victories and become bowl eligble. Another factor: Some conferences will not fill all their bowl slots, which could open another spot should seven CUSA teams become bowl eligible.

“I expect to play somewhere,” Hopson said, “but right now I just want to enjoy this one tonight. This was special for our seniors and for this football team. This team has never quit despite a lot of adversity. Even during the darkest hours, they always fought to the end. I am proud of the fight and integrity of this football team.”

USM’s 22 seniors all addressed their teammates on Friday night. The messages reportedly varied but there was a familiar theme: Let’s go out swinging.

They did, from USM’s first possession. The Eagles won the toss and elected to receive. They had Tech off balance from the start, lining up with both Mullens and freshman quarterback Keon Howard in the game, lining up alternately at quarterback and wide receiver. Once, with both Mullens and Howard in the game, running back Ito Smith actually took the snap.

Oh, and about Smith: He rushed 24 times for 127 yards. He caught four passes for 63 more yards. He finished his junior season with 1,321 yards rushing and 44 catches for 454 more yards. That’s 1,775 yards from scrimmage – and that’s a bunch. He deserves strong consideration for the C Spire Conerly Trophy.

“Ito plays well every game,” Hopson said. “He has been consistently great this season. He’s a gamer, a three-down back who can do it all. He’s a football player.”

After scoring at least one touchdown in 16 straight games, Smith did not score Saturday. If he cared, you couldn’t tell it. He had a grin, almost as big as Mullens’.

USM opened this season with a bang, a road victory at Kentucky. The Eagles ended it with a a huge victory at home.

In between?

Lots of injuries, more turnovers. USM entered this game last in the nation in turnover margin at minus-18. They won the turnover battle Saturday 3-1.

Or, as Hopson answered about what happened in between the first game and the last: “It wasn’t always what we wanted, but we kept fighting and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a team than I am of this one tonight.”

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at [email protected]