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Southern Miss tops Louisiana in New Orleans Bowl

Southern Miss tops Louisiana in New Orleans Bowl
Published On: Sun, Dec 18
Dec 20, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns players celebrate after winning the New Orleans Bowl against the Nevada Wolf Pack at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Louisiana-Lafayette defeated Neveda 16-3. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS -- It was a simple game of pitch and catch, with Southern Miss senior quarterback Nick Mullens calmly surveying the field and finding wide receiver Allenzae Staggers wide open over the middle repeatedly in the first quarter.

Mullens threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns and Staggers caught 11 passes for 230 yards to power the Golden Eagles to a 28-21 victory over the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns on Saturday night in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Staggers, named the game's MVP, caught seven passes for 202 yards in the first half, and that was enough to set the New Orleans Bowl record for receiving yards.

In racing to a 14-0 lead on their first two possessions, Mullens found Staggers for 55 yards on the Golden Eagles' first play from scrimmage and followed that up with a 66-yarder on first down on the second series.

"We came in here wanting to put the ball in the air," Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. "Those plays were big. Any time you can get explosive plays like that right off the jump gives you a lot of momentum on back-to-back drives. At the end of the day, we made some explosive plays, and defensively we didn't give up very many explosive plays."

Mullens battled through a dislocated thumb and a concussion this season, and was razor sharp Saturday night, completing 25 of 40 passes. Mullens threw touchdown passes of 6 yards to running back Ito Smith and also hit Staggers with a soft toss to the back of the zone from 5 yards out.

"It's too good to be true to go out like this," Mullens said. "We knew it was going to be important for us to stay balanced. We knew we could take advantage of some zone coverage. Coach Hop is always talking about precision, focus, timing and accurate throws. The offensive line helped us out a bunch."

Staggers said he was just trying to stay focused and give his team the big plays.

"That's a blessing," Staggers said. "Coming from a small 3A school (in Woodville, Miss.), this was a great experience. And then to play in the Superdome. We executed out plays and we took our time."

Mullens' two scoring passes gave him 87 for his Southern Miss career. The Golden Eagles finished their season 7-6.

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith also was an offensive force, scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 138 yards on 26 carries. He scored twice on rushes of 11 yards and 1 yard, and also caught a 6-yard scoring pass on a circle route.

Smith's 1-yard score gave Southern Miss a 28-14 lead with 12:12 left. Ito set up the score with runs of 24 and 13 yards on the previous two plays.

Louisiana quarterback Anthony Jennings closed the gap to 28-21 with a 3-yard run with 5:10 left, set up by a 53-yard interception return by defensive back Travis Crawford.

The Ragin' Cajuns got the ball back at their 18 with 2:02 left and moved the ball to the Southern Miss 48. But Jennings was sacked on third down and threw an incompletion on fourth down. Jennings was sacked six times and Louisiana gained only 252 yards in total offense -- 101 in the second half.

Louisiana failed to convert a fourth-and-2 from the Southern Miss 32 early in the third quarter when defensive tackle Dylan Bradley tackled quarterback Anthony Jennings for no gain.

"We dug ourselves a little hole early," Louisiana coach Mark Hudspeth said. "Their first big play (the 55-yard throw to Staggers) caught us, and the second one (the 66-yarder) was a busted coverage. Nevertheless, being down 14-0, our guys rallied. It was another example of character and continuing to come back."

NOTES: The Ragin' Cajuns were so fired up before kickoff that coach Mark Hudspeth put his players in a circle and selected two players at a time to run a mini-nutcracker drill. ... Before RB Ito Smith scored on an 11-yard draw on Southern Miss's first series, he picked up the blitz on QB Nick Mullens' 55-yard strike to Allenzae Staggers. ... Smith finished with 17 rushing TDs this season. ... The Golden Eagles won despite committing 13 penalties for 131 yards.

Read the complete news article here...

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