Golden Eagles going bowling|USM rights ship to earn bowl bid

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 21, 2008

A lot of teams look forward to a nice bowl trip a jet trip away from home in sunny climes.

Southern Miss, on its trip to the New Orleans Bowl, won’t be racking up the frequent flier miles.

It may be only 110 miles from Hattiesburg to New Orleans, but count the Golden Eagles as glad to be there.

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The Golden Eagles (6-6, 4-4 in C-USA play) weathered a winless October with a five-game losing skid, but righted the ship by closing the season with a four-game winning streak.

The reward was a berth in the New Orleans Bowl against Sun Belt champion Troy (8-4, 5-2 in Sun Belt play) today.

“We are extremely excited about going to the New Orleans Bowl,” first-year Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said in a team release. “This is a tremendous bowl setting and we hope that our fans will come down and support us and the bowl. I know our team is excited about this opportunity to get down there and represent Conference USA.”

The key for Southern’s turnaround was the maturation of Fedora’s no-huddle, spread offense and a massive improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Offensively, the biggest key for the Golden Eagles has been the emergence of DeAndre Brown as perhaps C-USA’s most dangerous receiver. The 6-foot-6 Ocean Springs native has 66 catches for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns despite starting only six games. He leads all NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision freshmen in receiving yards and touchdown catches.

Also putting up big numbers was senior tight end Shawn Nelson. The 6-foot-5 Nelson caught 51 passes for 541 yards and three touchdowns this season.

Freshman Austin Davis, in his first season as starting quarterback, has been stellar. He has completed 241-of-420 passes for 2,852 yards with 21 TD passes and only eight interceptions. His 21 touchdown passes eclipsed the freshman record set by Brett Favre.

While many onlookers expected running back Damion Fletcher’s production to decrease drastically in Fedora’s spread offense, the Biloxi native has prospered. Fletcher has rushed 205 times for 1,235 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging more than 112 yards per game. During the winning streak, the Golden Eagles have given up only 8.75 points per contest, in contrast to the more than 35 points per contest they yielded during their five-game skid. Senior linebacker Gerald McRath tallied a C-USA-leading 126 tackles this season.

The defense will be without former Warren Central standout and starting strong safety Chico Hunter, who tore knee ligaments in the 70-14 victory over UAB after starting nine games.

Troy comes into today’s game with another Sun Belt title from Larry Blakeney’s high-octane spread attack, which averaged more than 30 points per game despite losing starting quarterback Jamie Hampton for the season.

Backup quarterback Levi Brown didn’t miss a beat, throwing for 1,775 yards and 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions. His favorite target, sophomore wideout Jerrel Jernigan, set a school record with 68 receptions for 803 yards and a team-high five touchdown catches.  And the Trojans aren’t completely one-dimensional offensively, as sophomore tailback DuJuan Harris rushed for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“Troy is a really good football team on both sides of the ball,” Fedora said in a team release. “They are probably the most balanced football team we have seen this season. We really have our work cut out for us.”

The Trojans pushed SEC foe LSU in Baton Rouge to the limit in a 40-31 loss and won their last two games by a 83-12 margin.

Defensively, the Trojans might be one of the fastest defenses the Golden Eagles will see this season. The Trojans are led by a pair of junior linebackers Boris Lee and Bear Woods, both named to the All-Sun Belt first team. The duo combined for 217 tackles, including 13½ tackles for loss and four sacks. Defensive ends Brandon Lang (67 tackles, 16½ for loss, 9½ sacks) and Cameron Sheffield (63 tackles, 12½ tackles for loss and 5½ sacks) were both first-team All-Sun Belt selections.


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