HATTIESBURG, MS - The Golden Eagles came into Friday's on a three-game losing streak, facing the C-USA West division champs and winners of seven straight Louisiana Tech. All things considered, it was a game Southern Miss had no business winning.
Yet, USM left its final game at the Rock victors by a score of 39-24, punching its eligibility for the bowl season. The Golden Eagles were fueled by pride and even a comment from Bulldogs receiver Trent Taylor earlier in the week saying he wanted to "embarrass" Southern Miss.
"The quotes that [Louisiana Tech] said are taped to my locker so that's how serious I was about it," said Southern Miss senior wide receiver D.J. Thompson. "I looked at the quotes that they said about us every day."
"Those guys ticked me off," said Southern Miss senior offensive lineman Wil Freeman. "Everything they had been talking before the week made me angry. I don't get very angry but talking about embarrassing us…Talk's all well and good until we step up to that line and you get hit in the mouth."
Southern Miss hit the Bulldogs quite a few times, pounding them for 426 yards of total offense. Much of the Golden Eagles' success was due to the return of two key seniors, quarterback Nick Mullens and wide receiver D.J. Thompson. Mullens went 29-33 for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Thompson caught 12 of those passes for 135 yards, both career highs.
"I told them before the game, 'I don't care if we go up to Jackson, Mississippi where I'm from and play a bowl game and go to the mall,'" Thompson said. "I don't care. I just want to go to a bowl game my senior year. Now I hate that we couldn't have repeated this performance over and over again because I just loved the way we played tonight. I'm proud of those guys."
It wasn't the season the Golden Eagles envisioned when they opened with a win over Kentucky in week one. But considering how bumpy a ride 2016 has been, Southern Miss couldn't have asked for a better finish.
"I just think this season we really showed a lot about ourselves and just life," said Southern Miss junior defensive back Picasso Nelson Jr. "Because in life you have a lot of ups and downs but if you just keep fighting, great things happen."
"A lot of people on the outside don't understand all the battles and adversities this team has gone through," said Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson. "This team never quit."
"And the fans tonight, I know we might not have fulfilled expectations to the fullest but we appreciate you guys sticking with us," Mullens said. "Appreciate you guys for real. Southern Miss a big family. People say it, but it really is."