HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Welcome back, Nick.
After missing the past two football games with a concussion, quarterback Nick Mullens returned to the University of Southern Mississippi's starting lineup Friday and guided the Golden Eagles to a stunning, 39-24 victory over Louisiana Tech University at Roberts Stadium.
Mullens completed 29 of 33 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for a fourth as the Golden Eagles (6-6, 4-4 Conference USA) snapped a three-game losing streak to become bowl eligible for a second consecutive season.
In the process, Mullens became the school's career leader with 84 touchdown passes.
"This football team has been a special blessing to me," USM coach Jay Hopson said. "A lot of people on the outside don't understand all of the battles and adversities this team went through.
"This team never quit…Even though we didn't win all the games we wanted to win, we battled through a lot. I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a football team in my life."
Louisiana Tech (8-4, 6-2), which already had clinched C-USA's West Division and a spot in the Dec. 3 conference championship game, saw a seven-game winning streak snapped.
"Give Southern Miss an awful amount of credit," Tech coach Skip Holtz said. "On our side (West Division), we're the two, most-talented teams and I think they're one of the top four, most-talented teams in the league.
"How they got in (their situation), I don't know, but they're a talented team, and when they want to play, they play. They played well (Friday night)."
USM running back Ito Smith collected 190 total yards, including 127 yards rushing, while receiver D.J. Thompson tied a Roberts Stadium record with a career-high 12 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
The Golden Eagles defense brought the Bulldogs' high-flying offense down to earth.
Tech entered the game as C-USA's leader in scoring (45.8 points per game), total offense (540 yards per game) and passing yardage (357.3 yards per game).
Against USM, the Bulldogs gained 254 total yards. Averaging 183.5 yards rushing a game, Tech netted just 8 yards Saturday.
"They controlled the line of scrimmage," Holtz said. "It was one-on-one, man on man."
Tech quarterback Ryan Higgins completed 22 of 39 yards for 246 yards, but did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season after tossing multiple touchdowns in each of the Bulldogs' first 11 games.
"I thought Ryan was forcing the ball a little bit, trying to get to a couple people," Holtz said. "It was a frustrating night, and we turned the ball over. We made the mistakes that you can't make if you want to win."
Higgins, who had thrown just four interceptions all season, was picked off three times in the fourth quarter.
Safety Picasso Nelson recorded his first interceptions since 2014 and the first, two-interception game of his career. Cornerback Cornell Armstrong logged his first interception of the season as the Golden Eagles had the first, three-interception game of the year.
The Golden Eagles also came up with a goal-line stand that sent the Bulldogs away empty after a bad punt snap set up Tech at USM's 12-yard line in the third quarter.
"It was electrifying," Nelson said. "It carried with us for the rest of the game."
Keon Howard, who had started the past two games at quarterback, opened the game with he and Mullens on the field at the same time and played throughout USM's first series at receiver and operating at quarterback out of the "Wildcat."
Howard opened the scoring on a 4-yard run, Mullens threw touchdown passes of 21 yards and 8 yards to Thompson and Stephen Brauchle kicked a 22-yard field goal in the first half as the Golden Eagles led 23-17 at halftime.
In the second half, Mullens fired a 6-yard scoring pass to Korey Robertson and Brauchle added a 25-yard field goal before Mullens' scoring run on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line put USM ahead by three scores with 2 minutes, 19 seconds to play.
Tech running back Jarred Craft, who netted just 17 yards on nine carries, scored on runs of 5 yards and 2 yards for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs also scored on a Xavier Woods' 30-yard fumble return and a 31-yard field goal by Jonathan Barnes.
Tech's leading receiver, Trent Taylor, had 10 catches for 119 yards, but second-leading receiver Carlos Henderson had just two catches for 25 yards.
Nelson said he was proud of the way that the Golden Eagles hung tight throughout the season.
"When you have your backs against the wall, you see true character," Nelson said. "We started out so well at the beginning of the season, and then it sunk, but throughout it all, we kept fighting."