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Eagles’ bid for Liberty clipped

Southern Miss head coach Jeff Bower consoles quarterback Dustin Almond after the Golden Eagles’ 17-0 loss to Utah in the Liberty Bowl. (Jon GiffinThe Vicksburg Post)

[1/1/04]MEMPHIS, Tenn. Call it the Rip Scherer Liberty Bowl jinx.

Or call it anemic, anorexic or downright awful. All would suffice in describing the University of Southern Mississippi’s offensive performance against Utah in a 17-0 Liberty Bowl loss on Wednesday night.

Things were so bad for the Golden Eagles that punter Luke Johnson earned the team’s most valuable offensive player award.

“And rightfully so,” a despondent USM coach Jeff Bower said.

Johnson punted eight times for a 45.3 yard average and was the biggest offensive spark of the evening.

The Golden Eagles had 79 yards of total offense at the end of the third quarter, were whistled for 12 penalties for 92 yards and lost four fumbles.

“Not in my wildest nightmares would I think this would have happened,” Southern Miss center Jim Hicks said. “We had a month to prepare for them, and we should have had all 11 players on the same page.

“We didn’t. It looked like we had two guys on the same page.”

Scherer, the former Memphis coach, had little success in the Liberty Bowl as head coach of the Tigers and was fired three years ago. This is his first season as Southern Miss’ offensive coordinator.

“They are a very athletic team and they whipped our offense,” Scherer said. “We had opportunities, but never could capitalize.”

Much of that had to do with a ferocious Utes’ (10-2) defense that harassed quarterbacks Dustin Almond and Micky D’Angelo all night. Almond finished 11-for-33 passing for 122 yards and D’Angelo completed 2 of 6 passes for 22 yards.

“The coaches called a lot of the right blitz packages and we went after them,” Utah defensive lineman Lewis Powell said. “When they got down, we could sense they were getting frustrated and we wanted to take advantage of that.”

D’Angelo, who started the season at quarterback before suffering a concussion that sidelined the sophomore, came into the game after Almond drew a personal foul penalty for kicking a Utah player.

D’Angelo, though, had to leave the game after his second series when he was hit in the head by a rushing lineman.

Bower did not say what D’Angelo’s condition was or if he would play football again.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate on that,” Bower said.

Anthony Harris, who led the Golden Eagles with 70 yards rushing, ripped off the biggest offensive play from scrimmage for the Eagles. The 41-yard run midway through the fourth quarter with the Eagles trailing only 10-0 set up USM at the Utah 18-yard line.

The Eagles gained 8 yards on the next three plays, but were stifled on fourth down giving the ball back to Utah.

After a Southern Miss fumble recovery on the Utes’ next possession, Almond completed a pass to Terrell Browden, but he fumbled and Morgan Scalley scooped up the loose ball and ran 72 yards for the final score and a 17-0 Utah lead.

“They made the plays when they had to, pure and simple,” Southern Miss defensive back Etric Pruitt said. “We could have, but they did.”

Scalley’s touchdown sent Southern Miss fans scurrying for the exits after the Eagles’ first shutout loss since 1995. Coming into the game, the Eagles had never been shut out in a bowl game.

“Some people thought this would be a defensive struggle,” said Utah running back Brandon Warfield, who ran for a game-high 91 yards and a touchdown to earn most valuable player honors for the game. “I thought it was nothing like that, it was an

offensive struggle.”

While the Golden Eagles’ offense went sour, the defense played up to its normal dominance. The first Utah touchdown came after a USM turnover, and the drive spanned 42 seconds on two plays. Warfield capped the short march with a 5-yard touchdown run the only points of the first half.

Utah quarterback Alex Smith, who came into the game having thrown for nearly 2,200 yards, finished the game 8-of-19 for 124 yards. He was intercepted by former Warren Central standout Alex Ray late in the fourth quarter.

The loss put an end to the Golden Eagles’ six-game winning streak that saw them win the outright Conference USA championship with a victory over TCU in Hattiesburg.

Senior linebacker Rod Davis, who decided to come back to Southern Miss after a stellar junior season, said the loss to Utah stings, but does not diminish what the Eagles accomplished.

“I came back to win a championship and we did that,” Davis said. “But I still feel like there is a void in my heart. We came out and gave it our all, but they came out and dominated us.”