Southern Miss faces do-or-die game with Tech

Southern Miss faces do-or-die game with Tech

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Will he or won't he?

The question lingers whether senior quarterback Nick Mullens will return to the football field for the University of Southern Mississippi when its welcomes Louisiana Tech University in the regular-season finale for both teams.

But regardless of whether Mullens returns from injury after a two-plus-game absence or true freshman Keon Howard makes his third, career start, the bottom line remains the same.

The Golden Eagles (5-6, 3-4 Conference USA), who have lost their last three games and five of six, face a simple truth: win, or see their season come to an end.

Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. at Roberts Stadium.

"We just have to keep digging and keep fighting," USM coach Jay Hopson said.

USM, which will honor 22 seniors, may have to dig as deep as it has all season.

The Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1), who have won seven consecutive games, already have clinched C-USA's West Division and will play in the conference championship game.

Tech is led by a high-flying aerial attack that has fueled an offense averaging nearly 46 points a game. Quarterback Ryan Higgins, who has completed 67.5 percent of his passes, has thrown for 3,460 yards and 34 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson have combined for 26 touchdown receptions, with Taylor grabbing 103 passes for 1,343 yards and Henderson 61 catches for 1,179 yards.

"A very talented football team," Hopson said. "A lot of playmakers at receiver, running back, the quarterback position. I don't see a lot of weaknesses."

Hopson said earlier this week that Mullens had been practicing, but had not been cleared medically to play after taking a blow to his head in the second half against the University of Charlotte.

If Mullens cannot play Friday, Howard likely would start.

Howard has struggled in two starts, completing just 44 percent of his passes for 365 yards and a touchdown. He has given the offense another dimension, rushing for 138 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries.

Howard has committed nine turnovers, including five lost fumbles and four interceptions.

Beyond the mistakes of a young player thrown late into the breach, Hopson said he has liked what he has seen of Howard's makeup.

"He's a guy who is a competitor," Hopson said. "I'm proud of him, proud of his effort. I'm proud of his fight. He keeps coming back. He's a ballplayer.

"It's just part of football and that's something we just have to keep digging and keep fighting."