NEW ORLEANS — Many pundits opine that college football has far too many bowl games, that there’s no need for games like the New Orleans Bowl, which matched teams with 6-6 records.
To which I would reply: Nobody forces those pundits to watch.
They would have missed plenty Saturday night (and Sunday morning). Southern Miss defeated the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns 28-21 before 35,061 fans and an ESPN national audience.
Those who did watch saw magical performances by USM running back Ito Smith and wide receiver Allenzae Staggers. They saw quarterback Nick Mullens polish off one of the most productive careers in Golden Eagle football history.
They saw another splendid running back in ULL’s Elijah McGuire.
They saw two regional rivals go at each other before – and sometimes after – the whistle. They saw a game that wasn’t decided until a last-ditch ULL pass fell incomplete with 12 seconds remaining.
New Orleans, the city, surely isn’t complaining. The hotel booked a bunch of hotel rooms at an otherwise slow time of the year. Fans packed restaurants and taverns, which sold a lot of oysters and shrimp and beer and stronger. ESPN filled more than four hours of air time. And nobody got hurt, unless you count ULL defensive backs. Several of them left the field limping, tired of tackling Smith and chasing Staggers.
Smith, a compact, 195-pounder, showed explosiveness, quickness, shifty moves and surprising power. He scored three touchdowns and had another one called back. He ran for 138 yards and several times picked up ULL blitzes, giving Mullens an extra second to hit a big throw.
Staggers, voted the game’s MVP, caught a New Orleans Bowl record 11 passes for 230 yards. He made tough catches over the middle and long ones down the middle. Like Smith, Staggers has a year of eligibility remaining, which should brighten the New Year for USM fans.
The problem for Coach Jay Hopson and his staff will come in replacing Mullens, who finished his fourth year as USM’s starting quarterback with a 346-yard, two-touchdown passing effort. His career totals of 11,994 passing yards and 87 touchdowns are both records for a school attended by Brett Favre and Austin Davis, among others.
Replacing Mullens will be a chore. His importance to the program has never been more evident than when he returned from a concussion injury to lead the Eagles to an upset victory over heavily favored Louisiana Tech 22 days ago, which enabled him to play one more game in black and gold.
For all the USM offensive heroics – and there were plenty – the defense was outstanding throughout, limiting the Cajuns to 252 yards, slightly more than half of what the Eagles gained. Defensive end Jaboree Poole and tackle Dylan Bradley constantly harassed Anthony Jennings, the transfer from LSU, who completed just 8 of 20 throws for 95 yards. They also helped limit McGuire, a top-shelf running back blessed with speed and power, to 99 yards.
The Superdome crowd also saw why these two teams came into the game with six losses, each. USM lost two turnovers and got only one back to finish the season a negative 17 in turnovers, worst in the nation. To finish with a winning record, despite that glaring statistic, is an achievement in itself. There’s no way to look it up, but few, if any, teams have ever had a turnover ratio like that and managed to win more than they lost. The Eagles also shot their toes off with penalties this night, losing 131 yards on 13 flags. They made it hard on themselves all too often.
ULL’s shortcomings in the passing game, both offensive and defensively, also were readily apparent. It’s almost impossible to win in today’s college game when you can’t throw accurately or defend someone who does.
All that said, there were lots of smiles, hugs and cheers in the USM locker room where losing five of six games in October and November seemed a distant memory.
“We made big plays in crucial situations when it counted most,” Hopson said. “I’ve never been more proud of a group of guys in my life.”
Said Mullens, “You couldn’t ask to finish any better than this. We got to hold up a bowl trophy in front of our crowd in the Superdome.”