Cincinnati spoils Bower’s swan song|[12/23/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 23, 2007

Longtime USM coach leaves with 31-21 loss in bowl

BIRMINGHAM — As Jeremy Young’s fourth-down pass settled into the arms of Cincinnati defensive back DeAngelo Smith, it brought the curtain down on a 31-21 Bowl victory for the Bearcats and the end of the career of the face of the Southern Miss program for the past 17 seasons.

Jeff Bower coached his final game Saturday on the same field he coached his first — both resulting in bowl losses in which the opponent scored 31 points. On Dec. 2, 1990, Bower coached the Eagles and a relatively unknown quarterback named Brett Favre in the now-defunct All-American Bowl to a 31-27 loss to North Carolina State.

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“I’m just proud of our guys,” Bower said when asked what it was like walking off the field for the last time as Southern Miss’ coach. “My daughter was there with me which was neat. Maybe a little emotional when I talked to the players there.

“The one thing I wanted my guys to do is when they walked off that field, they knew they did the best they could.”

Bower, who resigned under pressure on Nov. 26, guided the Golden Eagles to 14 straight winning seasons and 10 bowl appearances in the last 11 years.

“I thought our kids played their (butts) off today,” said Southern Miss defensive coordinator Jay Hopson, a Vicksburg native and former Warren Central quarterback. “We didn’t make a couple tackles we should have. In the first half, I don’t remember them making a play other than the quarterback running around the backfield slinging it down the field.”

Hopson, whose defense was ranked amongst the best in every statistical category in Conference USA, will join Bower looking for the next coaching job. He has been the Southern Miss defensive coordinator for the past three seasons and has six years total on its coaching staff.

The defense on Saturday held Cincinnati (10-3) to 32 yards of offense in the first quarter, but game MVP Ben Mauk threw for 206 yards in the second and ended the game completing 30 of 52 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns.

“Once you get to the perimeter, it’s hard to cover all our receivers,” Mauk said. “It’s hard to cover the receivers for three of four seconds, but give them five or six and it is really tough.”

Mauk was intercepted three times and sacked three more, but Southern Miss quarterback Jeremy Young hit on only 18 of 32 passes and was intercepted three times as well. Southern Miss trailed 14-7 at halftime, but a crucial fourth-down miss on the Eagles’ first possession of the third quarter allowed the Bearcats to take a comfortable lead.

Southern Miss faced a fourth-and-one at its own 29 when it attempted a fake punt. Justin Estes came up inches short of the first down and one play later Mauk hit tight end Earnest Jackson for a 29-yard touchdown and a 21-7 Cincinnati advantage.

“Ben Mauk is what makes it go for us,” Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. “He was difficult to defend and he made plays. If there was one guy that made a difference today and is the heartbeat of our football team, it’s Ben Mauk.”

Southern Miss got within a touchdown again when Jeremy Young capped a 14-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.

Cincinnati scored the next 10 points to close out the third quarter with a 31-14 lead.

USM scored five minutes into the fourth quarter, but did not manage to get close to scoring another touchdown.

The loss spoiled an outstanding performance from Conerly Trophy winner Damion Fletcher. The sensational sophomore ran for 155 yards on 29 carries and also caught seven passes for 50 more yards. Young contributed 55 yards rushing.

“We obviously didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” Bower said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort, though, and that is what a coach likes to see.

“We couldn’t tackle the quarterback. I thought we should have had 10 or 12 sacks in the game, but he made plays.”

Cincinnati, under first-year coach Kelly, tied a school record with 10 wins and he earned the Big East Coach of the Year award. It took six weeks, he said, for his team to get recognized in the national polls, but “it won’t take six games next year.”

South Alabama rumor brings smile to Bower

BIRMINGHAM — Jeff Bower has no plans to coach next year, but one rumor brought a twinkle to his eyes during a postgame press conference here on Saturday.

The University of South Alabama in Mobile is planning on starting a football program.

“Maybe,” Bower said when asked if he would be interested in a job should they come calling. “South Alabama would be interesting.”

As a head coach, Bower has spent his entire career at the helm of Southern Miss. Faced with the possibility of not coaching next year, Bower said he has no ideas what he will do.

“I guess they can’t say I play too much damn golf,” Bower said. “I don’t know what I will do, mow the yard, take the dog for a walk, I don’t know. For the past 17 years, I have been at the office nearly seven days a week. I guess my wife will have to get used to me being home. I’m sure she will have something on the agenda for me to do.”

Fletcher says so long Sam

Southern Miss sophomore running back Damion Fletcher broke the Southern Miss single-season rushing mark of 1,545 yards set in 1982 by Sam Dejarnette.

Fletcher, the reigning Conerly Trophy winner, ran for 155 yards in Saturday’s Bowl loss to give him 1,586 for the season and 2,974 for his career.

Fletcher also moved into fourth place on the career rushing list. He trails Sammy Winder (3,114), Derrick Nix (3,584) and the late Ben Garry (3,595).

Despite the big numbers, the ones Fletcher concentrated on were Cincinnati’s 31 and his Golden Eagles’ 21 — the numbers on the scoreboard.

“In the end, I didn’t think it was a very good game for me because we didn’t come out with a win,” he said.

Mr. Referee: It’s Southern Miss

Late in the third quarter with Cincinnati facing a fourth-and-2 deep inside Southern Miss territory, Golden Eagles head coach Jeff Bower called timeout.

“Timeout, Mississippi State,” the referee said.

The misstep drew a raucus chorus of boos from the Southern Miss fans and even hacked off Bower.

“I told the ref after he said timeout Mississippi State — he did come over and qapologize — and I was cool about it,” Bower said. “I asked the guy closest to us if he could please go out and tell the referee if he can read that all he has to do is look at the side of our helmet. The guy responded that he’s a Texan with only a fifth grade education. I said if the head guy has a fifth-grade education, what is your level of education. That’s it with the referees.”

In the season-opening college football game in August between Mississippi State and LSU, ESPN aired a promo for Ole Miss. The sports network later apologized.

Not your dad’s Legion Field

The venerable old stadium on the south side of Birmingham is a bit smaller than the last time the Golden Eagles visited.

In 2004, structural engineers ruled that the 9,000 seat upper deck on the East side of the stadium would need masive repairs. At about the same time, the University of Alabama, which once played select home games each year at Legion Field, announced it would not be playing any more games in the state’s largest city.

That left the University of Alabama-Birmingham as Legion Field’s only tenant. So the upper deck was demolished, cutting the capacity to slightly more than 71,000.