MOBILE, Ala. (AP) – With big plays, a marathon drive and a smothering defense, Southern Miss gave Ohio a tough lesson on postseason play.
The Golden Eagles also gave a pretty good tutorial on how to make a halftime lead hold up in a 28-7 victory over the Bobcats on Sunday night in the GMAC Bowl.
After a scoreless first quarter, Southern Miss (9-5) scored 21 second-quarter points then surged out of halftime with a season-long 17-play touchdown drive that effectively ended any comeback threat.
“Even though we were up 21-0 at halftime we talked about going out there and really making a statement in the second half,” said Golden Eagles coach Jeff Bower, whose team did just that.
Frank Solich’s Bobcats (9-5) were making their first bowl appearance since 1968, but that euphoria wore off quickly as the game turned into a mismatch.
They are 0-3 in bowl games and failed to match their school record of 10 wins. It was a rough ending to a feel-good story that saw Solich, a former Nebraska coach, revive a struggling program that won only four games in his debut season.
“We’ve got many more steps to take,” he said. “It’s obvious we’ve got work to do.” But, he added, “I don’t think our team was awed by where we were at.”
By contrast, Southern Miss is accustomed to postseason play, making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and ninth in 10 years.
The Golden Eagles used a series of big plays in the final 8:33 of the first half for the three-touchdown lead.
First, backup tailback Tory Harrison scampered for a 43-yard touchdown run, only his second of the season. Jeremy Young then set up Damion Fletcher’s second first of two touchdowns – a 2-yard TD plunge – with a 30-yard pass to Josh Barnes on third-and-10.
The defense added points, too. James Denley returned an interception of Ohio backup quarterback Brad Bower 18 yards for a score with 1:13 left before the half.
It was the Golden Eagles’ seventh non-offensive TD of the season, the most under Bower.
“We played one of the best defensive games we’ve played all year,” said Denley, the game’s defensive MVP. “Guys were swarming everywhere.
“They tried to run right at us, and we were prepared for that.”
After the teams combined for just 82 offensive yards in the first quarter, Southern Miss racked up 150 in the second.
The Golden Eagles then monopolized the ball, opening the second half with that ball-hogging, 80-yard drive that worked 9:55 off the clock and severely damaged any hopes for a comeback by Ohio’s plodding offense.
It was the team’s longest drive of the season in both plays and time consumed.
Solich and his offense watched helpless from the sidelines for “it seemed like a day and a half,” he said.
Fletcher ended it by reversing field behind the line and outrunning the defenders for a 9-yard TD.
“That’s the way you want to come out and start the second half,” Bower said.
The darting, 175-pound freshman managed just 58 yards on 20 carries but it was enough for him to earn game Most Valuable Player honors. Young was the offensive MVP after passing for 160 yards.
Punter Britt Barefoot claimed special teams honors.
Ohio tailback Kalvin McRae capped a difficult week with a 10-carry, 37-yard performance. The two-time All-Mid-American Conference performer only arrived in Mobile Friday evening after his 7-month-old nephew’s death.
Both offenses struggled. Southern Miss managed just 284 yards compared to 224 for Ohio.
Once the Golden Eagles stopped McRae, Austen Everson and Bower were unable to bring their team back. Everson was 14-for-34 for 175 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to John Christy with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter. Bower completed just one of his three attempts for 2 yards.
“They made it hard for us to get the ground game going and when we sat there and tried to throw, they just made it tough,” Everson said. “We knew they were fast and we knew they were athletic, and they proved that.”
It was the first loss by a MAC team in six GMAC Bowl appearances.
Solich was noncommittal when asked about whether he planned to remain at Ohio next season. He has been rumored as a candidate to replace Glen Mason at Minnesota.
Asked about his future, he praised athletic director Kirby Hocutt and President Roderick McDavis instead of promising a return.
“Without the support we have from those two guys,” Solich said, “there’s no way we’d be able to get done what we got done this year.”