USM cruises past Marshall|[11/26/06]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 26, 2006

HATTIESBURG – Southern Miss lost to East Carolina exactly four weeks ago Saturday to even its record at 4-4, the Golden Eagles’ quest for a Conference USA championship seemingly gone with an overtime interception.

Then Southern Miss began winning. East Carolina lost to Rice and gave the Golden Eagles one last chance to reach their first Conference USA championship game.

On a balmy Saturday in front of more than 28,000 at M.M. Roberts Stadium, Damion Fletcher and the Golden Eagles defeated Marshall 42-7 to earn a berth in Friday’s conference championship game against host Houston. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.

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&#8220Coming in as a freshman and making it to the conference championship is a dream come true,” said Fletcher, a dynamic freshman from Biloxi who ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

In the process he became the Golden Eagles’ freshman career rushing leader with 1,240 yards. He broke Derrick Nix’s mark of 1,180 set in 1998.

&#8220If I would have known he would have done the things he has this year, I would have felt a lot better early in the season,” said Southern Miss (8-4) coach Jeff Bower, who has recorded 13 straight winning seasons at Southern Miss.

Southern Miss will earn a Liberty Bowl berth by beating Houston on Friday. A loss, and the Golden Eagles, who have been to eight bowl games since 1997, are likely headed to Mobile for the GMAC Bowl.

Marshall (5-7), which had won four straight coming into the contest, fell one win shy of being bowl eligible.

&#8220It hurts to go out the way we did,” Marshall defensive back Dennis Thornton said. &#8220That’s the chance you take when you play football. You have to take the good with the bad … and look forward to the next day.”

This will mark the second year Conference USA will have a championship game. The Eagles were Conference USA regular season co-champions in 1996 and the sole champions in 1997, ‘99 and 2002. The 1996 season, coincidentally, ended with a loss to Houston, one of the charter members of the conference.

Stopping the Cougars’ potent offense is something defensive coordinator Jay Hopson, a former Warren Central standout player, said will be a huge challenge.

The Cougars average 33 points and 527 yards. In the first meeting this season in Hattiesburg, Southern Miss won 31-27.

&#8220They are good. They are really good. There is no secret. Everyone in America knows how explosive they are offensively,” Hopson said. &#8220They have a great quarterback, great receivers. They have it all.”

Hopson’s defense forced four Marshall turnovers and limited the Herd to a single touchdown, a 14-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw in the second quarter. Marshall came into the game having averaged 37 points over its last five games.

&#8220During the last few weeks, we really played well on defense,” Bower said. &#8220We gave up seven points to a team that is averaging almost 37 in the last five ballgames. That says it all right there.”

Bradshaw ran for 110 yards, but the Herd fumbled twice, was intercepted twice, missed a field goal and had a blocked punt result in a Southern Miss touchdown. The blocked punt came soon after Southern Miss took the opening kickoff 82 yards and capped the drive with a 2-yard TD pass from Jeremy Young to Conrad Chanove.

Young completed 14 of 19 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score that gave Southern Miss a 21-7 halftime lead.

Marshall took the opening kickoff of the second half and appeared to have scored a touchdown, but a holding call negated the score and the Herd eventually missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.

Southern Miss then drove 80 yards in 12 plays to take a 28-7 lead on Young’s touchdown plunge. Fletcher ran 5 yards on the play before Young’s touchdown, getting taken down inches from the goal line. The run, though, gave Fletcher the freshman record. He has only played in 10 1/2 games this season.

Fletcher found the end zone in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, a 7-yard scamper that gave USM a 35-7 lead. Fullback Bobby Weakley scored the final touchdown after the Golden Eagles went 96 yards on 11 plays and chewed up more than seven minutes.

&#8220We knew all along that we were a great team,” Fletcher said. &#8220The coaches came out and told us that we had to keep working hard every week. We had to prepare well and we had to handle our business on the field. They had confidence in us and we had confidence in each other.”