Southern Miss wears out Ohio|[01/08/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 8, 2007

MOBILE, Ala. – Southern Miss’ methodical offense and impervious defense overwhelmed the newcomers from the Mid-American Conference.

The Golden Eagles beat Ohio University in every statistical category in a 28-7 victory in the 9th annual GMAC Bowl in front of 38,751 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

The victory gave Southern Miss (9-5) its third straight bowl win and ended a five-game GMAC Bowl winning streak by MAC teams.

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&#8220The kids knew the challenge and they stepped up to the challenge,” said Southern Miss defensive coordinator Jay Hopson, a former Warren Central quarterback in his third season with the Golden Eagles. &#8220I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. They stepped up tonight.”

The Golden Eagles’ defense was nearly flawless through three quarters, holding the Bobcats (9-5) to 98 yards of total offense and putting the clamps on standout running back Kalvin McRae. The junior came into the game with 1,215 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, but managed only 37 yards on 10 carries. He had been averaging 139 yards rushing per game over the Bobcats’ final eight games of the regular season.

&#8220Every week, we try to shut the best down. That’s how we model our defense,” Southern Miss defensive lineman Martavious Prince said. &#8220We knew we had to be physical up front and stop the run. We just came out and played our defense like we have been all year.”

The defensive effort did not come as too much of a surprise. The Golden Eagles led Conference USA in scoring defense and finished second in both rush and pass defense. Gerald McGrath led the defensive charge with 13 tackles and LeVance Richmond had an interception, but the game-turner came with 1:13 left in the first half when James Denley intercepted Austen Everson’s pass and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 Golden Eagles lead.

&#8220That interception was really big,” USM linebacker Tokumbo Abanikanda said. &#8220Every time we get a turnover we want to score. Denley did it there and it changed the game.”

Southern Miss put an end to any Ohio comeback threat with a second-half drive for the ages. Starting at the 20-yard line, Southern Miss drove 80 yards in a season-high 17 plays that took an amazing 9 minutes and 50 seconds. Freshman Damion Fletcher’s 9-yard touchdown run gave Southern Miss a 28-0 lead.

&#8220Even when Southern Miss drove the opening kickoff in the second half down the field and had the ball for what seemed like a day-and-a-half to eat up most of the third quarter, I thought our ballclub did not cave in,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich, a former Nebraska coach who has led an Ohio resurgence over the past two seasons. &#8220Our seniors should be congratulated. They enabled us to take a step forward.”

Ohio scored a fourth-quarter touchdown and finished with 224 yards of total offense. Everson connected with Thomas Christy on a 13-yard TD reception with 9:34 to play in the fourth quarter. The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds and the Bobcats turned the ball over on downs twice and had a pass intercepted as the Golden Eagles celebrated a victory in their ninth bowl game in the past 10 years.

&#8220We knew we had to play well defensively and shut down their running game,” Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said. &#8220I thought we did that pretty well tonight.”

Following a scoreless first quarter, Southern Miss began a scoring barrage 6 1/2 minutes into the second when freshman Tory Harrison rambled 43 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Fletcher barreled in from two yards out five minutes later for a 14-0 lead.

Fletcher set the Southern Miss freshman rushing record with 1,388 yards and 11 touchdowns, surpassing Derrick Nix in yards and equaling Nix’s 11 rushing touchdowns set in 2003. Fletcher finished his first bowl game with 58 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries to earn offensive MVP honors. He also caught three passes for 28 yards.

Denley took home top defensive honors and Young earned game MVP honors.