Eagles set for GMAC Bowl|[01/07/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 7, 2007

MOBILE, Ala. – Tonight’s soggy GMAC Bowl matchup couldn’t feature two more different teams.

Ohio has played in two bowl games in the school’s history – the 1968 Tangerine Bowl and the 1962 Sun Bowl. The Bobcats have finished either in the basement or close to it nearly every year since.

But an infusion of energy led by former Nebraska coach Frank Solich has turned around the once-dormant program.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

&#8220This is a huge step for our program,” Solich said. &#8220Any time you can get on national TV and you’re seen around the country, and all of the sudden Ohio University is out in front of recruits and their families. It pays big dividends when you can play in a bowl game.”

Contrast the Bobcats’ postseason inexperience with a team that plays in bowls nearly every year.

Southern Miss has ruled Conference USA since its inception 11 years ago, playing in nine bowl games in the past 10 seasons.

&#8220The only way playing in a bowl gets old is if you are home watching,” Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said. &#8220We are excited to be here and it should be a great matchup.”

Ohio (9-4) can take another step forward in announcing its arrival to the world of college football with a win over Southern Miss (8-5) in the 9th annual GMAC Bowl tonight from Ladd-Peebles Stadium in this south Alabama city. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPN.

Both teams are ready to get the press conferences over and lace up the cleats.

&#8220We’re tired of talking about it. We’re not answering any more questions,” Bower said with a chuckle. &#8220We’re ready to go.”

Southern Miss is coming off a 34-20 loss to Houston in the Conference USA championship game. Ohio last played the same weekend, falling to Central Michigan in the Mid-American Athletic Conference championship game.

&#8220I think we have had some very good practices,” said Solich, who guided Nebraska to 58 wins and six bowl appearances in six seasons. &#8220We’ve had a good mixture of physical practices, practices for conditioning and we have hit the weight room hard. I think we have had a chance to heal up some and we are in as good condition as we could be this time of year.”

Such could be said for the Golden Eagles, who will have standout freshman running back Damion Fletcher at full speed. The freshman from Biloxi has missed time this year with an injury and missed a half because of disciplinary action. That has not stopped him, though, as he set a Southern Miss freshman record with 1,330 yards on 256 carries and scored nine touchdowns.

&#8220I didn’t think he would be this good this soon,” Bower said of Fletcher, who was forced to flee Biloxi during Hurricane Katrina. He landed in Florida before returning to the Gulf Coast for an abbreviated senior season, then came to Hattiesburg. He became the team’s full-time starter after a loss to Florida in the first week of the season.

Ohio counters with junior Kelvin McRae, a Georgia native who has rushed for 1,215 yards and 15 touchdowns, while all the other Bobcat runners have combined for seven scores.

&#8220Both teams like to run the football and both are very capable of running the football,” Solich said. &#8220They also do a good job mixing in the passing game into the run game.”

Jeremy Young will lead Southern Miss under center. He has tossed 12 touchdown passes and thrown for more than 1,600 yards. Stephen Reaves, a transfer from Michigan State, has seen action in seven games this season and has attempted only 72 passes.

On defense, Vicksburg native Jay Hopson coaches a unit that led Conference USA in scoring defense, yet did not have a single first-team All-Conference USA player.

&#8220I think that says a lot about our defense, that unselfishness. We have no stars, no marquee players, just a lot of guys that work hard and play well together,” Bower said.

Many future NFL stars have appeared in the GMAC Bowl in its short history. Reigning NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson played in the 1999 and 2000 games for TCU, while Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich, then at Marshall, threw for 576 yards in a 64-61 victory over East Carolina in 2002. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led Miami of Ohio to a 49-28 victory over Memphis in the 2003 game.