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Southern Miss gigs Frogs

MOBILE, Ala. Southern Mississippi’s defense was solid all night long against Texas Christian in Wednesday’s Mobile Alabama Bowl. The offense only came up big when it needed to.

Jeff Kelly had two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning 29-yarder to freshman Kenneth Johnson with nine seconds left, to lift USM (8-4) to a 28-21 victory over the 13th-ranked Horned Frogs.

The win washed away some of the bitter taste that was left by USM’s poor finish in the regular season. The Golden Eagles lost three of their last four games, and went to double overtime against Alabama-Birmingham in their only win in that span.

“You always remember your first college game and your last game,” said USM defensive lineman Cedric Scott, who had six tackles, two for a loss. “All of the seniors got together and talked, and we wanted to go out winners. So, we came out and played hard, and we just did what we had to do. I think we executed our assignments real well today.”

TCU had the ball with just over two minutes to play and the score tied at 21-21, but ran a conservative offense to try to force overtime. The strategy backfired, however, when TCU went three-and-out and USM’s Eric Pruitt partially blocked the punt. USM got the ball at the TCU 43, and Kelly was ready to reward his defense for the effort.

Kelly, who was just 5-for-17 for 40 yards through three quarters, scrambled 14 yards for a first down on third-and-10 from the 43 with 14 seconds left, then hit Johnson on a post pattern as he crossed the goal line on the next play. Kelly fell on his back and pointed to the sky as the Golden Eagle fans and players erupted into celebration.

TCU tried to set up a throwback play on the ensuing kickoff, but Cedric James was forced out of bounds at the TCU 40 as time ran out.

“All game long, every time we got in five-wide, they’d bring a lot of pressure and just play man coverage behind it. But for some reason they decided to drop back into a zone and Kenneth did a great job getting into the middle, splitting the seam and pulling it in and getting into the end zone,” said Kelly, who finished 11-of-23 for 159 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Southern Miss defense did its part to help the Golden Eagles to their third bowl win in four years by scoring one TD on a 50-yard interception return by Leo Barnes in the first quarter, setting up another score with an interception deep in TCU territory, and holding Heisman Trophy finalist Ladainian Tomlinson in check for much of the game.

Tomlinson finished with 126 yards and scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to give TCU (10-2) a 21-14 lead, but was only able to break free of the Golden Eagles’ speedy defense on one run, a 33-yard TD scamper with 4:58 left in the third that gave TCU the lead.

The play showed why Tomlinson was a Heisman finalist. He got around the USM defense on the left sideline, overpowered a Golden Eagle defender who had grabbed the back of his shirt at the 20, then made a cutback to the middle of the field at the 10 to get into the end zone.

But Tomlinson had just 52 yards in the first half, and didn’t get anything in the fourth as USM’s defense slammed the door. TCU couldn’t manage a first down on three fourth-quarter possessions and had just 18 yards.

“I think they adjusted well and their defensive coordinator really did a great job of adjusting to where we were going,” Tomlinson said.

Kelly, meanwhile, finally got the Golden Eagle offense back on track midway through the final period. A controversial pass interference call gave Southern Miss a first down at its own 44 with just under eight minutes to play, and Kelly found LeRoy Handy for a 56-yard TD pass on the next play to tie the game at 21-21.

Handy found a hole in the Horned Frogs’ zone coverage about 15 yards downfield and went the rest of the way untouched.

“We had a breakdown on an inside zone play,” said TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who lost his first game after taking over for Dennis Franchione earlier this month.

TCU was held to three-and-out on its next possession, and USM made a gutty charge to get into field goal range with about 21/2 minutes to play. But kicker Brant Hanna, who had previously missed badly on two field goal tries and had another blocked, kicked the ground as he approached the ball and had another blocked.

The miscue gave TCU the ball at its own 26 with no timeouts remaining, and Patterson elected to play it safe, setting up Kelly’s late heroics.

“Our plan was to get in, try to get a first down and if we get a first down we were going to go into what we call our Mayday Offense,’ which is our two-minute offense,” Patterson said. “Obviously we got the delay of game, and then the partially blocked punt and you know the rest of the story.”