NEW ORLEANS, LA (WDAM) - In the weeks leading up to the 16th annual R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley revealed that he had come to the University of Southern Mississippi to help revive the Golden Eagles' football fortunes.
Saturday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Bradley and his fellow 21 other seniors helped USM's program take another step forward.
Receiver Allenzae Staggers set records for receptions and receiving yards as the Golden Eagles outlasted the University of Louisiana-Lafayette 28-21 before the fourth-largest crowd (35,601) in the bowl's history.
The victory gave Southern Miss (7-6) consecutive winning seasons following a low point that saw the Golden Eagles log just four wins over a three-season stretch from 2012-14.
"Southern Miss is back," said Bradley, who finished with four tackles, including 1 ½ sacks, in his final game as a Golden Eagle. "That's what I signed up for, to bring Southern Miss (football) back to where it belongs, as a championship team, as a team that's contending for a championship every year.
"So, these guys behind me, the juniors and the sophomores and the freshmen and the guys coming in, now they know, 'OK, we can win a bowl game and we can get to the conference championship.' So, to help lead these guys on the field, it's just an amazing feeling."
Staggers, who was named the bowl's Most Valuable Player, had an amazing evening, catching a career-high 11 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown.
"It's just a blessing," Staggers said. "We executed, just executed plays."
Staggers became the only Golden Eagle to ever log two, 200-yard receiving games, and he did that in his first season after transferring in from East Mississippi Community College.
Staggers had a six-catch, school-record, 292-yard effort against Rice University on Oct. 1.
But Staggers was far from the only USM standout.
Running back Ito Smith rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns against the Ragin' Cajuns, and caught a pass for a third, as the Golden Eagles won in the postseason for the first time since 2011.
"We just feel blessed, very fortunate, very grateful," USM coach Jay Hopson said. "These guys fought through so much during the season, so I'm just very proud of them."
Smith, who passed Harold Shaw for second on the list for rushing touchdowns in a season (17), helped the Golden Eagles grind on the Ragin' Cajuns (6-7) in the second half.
Smith gained 105 yards and scored on a 1-yard run on 19 carries over the final two quarters as the Golden Eagles scored on a pair of lengthy, drives that ground off a third of the second half clock.
"At halftime, my whole deal was, 'How about some methodical drives?" USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "They were killing us on time of possession, but we came out and had two, (10-plus)-play drives that I thought won the day for us.
"We ran the ball well in the second half."
Louisiana-Lafayette, which had won three of its final four games to become bowl eligible, lost for the ninth consecutive time to the Golden Eagles. The two had been long-time rivals, though they had not met since 2008.
"It hurts, but at least we had one more game to play," UL-Lafayette linebacker Otha Peters said.
The Cajuns struggled to find any offensive consistency against the Golden Eagles.
All told, Louisiana-Lafayette managed just 252 total yards, including 95 yards passing, and two of the Cajuns' three touchdowns came on drives of 29 yards and 19 yards after USM turnovers.
"Their pressure (Saturday night), it got to us," said UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth after watching Southern Miss collect six sacks among nine tackles for loss, including a bowl-record three sacks by defensive end Ja'Boree Poole.
"We just didn't have the answers late in the game."
The Cajuns came up short at the beginning of the game as well, as senior USM quarterback Nick Mullens and Staggers hooked up on long passes to set up USM's first two scores.
The two combined on a 55-yard pass down to the Ragin' Cajuns' 12-yard line on the Golden Eagles' first offensive snap. The strike set up Smith's bronco-ride-of-an-11-yard run for a 7-0 lead with 9:39 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a three-and-out, Mullens hit Staggers with a quick slant that turned into a 66-yard gain down to UL-Lafayette's 9-yard line. Two plays later, Mullens found Smith on a 6-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead with 7:17 left in the quarter.
"Nick was really, really good early on," Dawson said.
UL-Lafayette responded with a nine-play, 66-yard drive, capped by quarterback Anthony Jennings' 4- yard run to pull within 14-7 with 3:15 left in the first period, and momentum continued to shift UL-Lafayette's way through the first half of the second quarter.
Parker Shaunfield, in his first action since being sidelined in late October with a pulled thigh muscle, missed a 38-yard field, and on Southern Miss' next possession, Mullens was sacked and stripped of the ball by UL-Lafayette linebacker Tre'maine Lightfoot.
Peters recovered and returned the ball 15 yards to USM's 29-yard line. Two plays later, backup quarterback Dion Ray took a direct snap and weaved his way 12 yards to tie the game 14-14 with 7:28 left in the second quarter.
The Cajuns threatened to take the lead shortly before halftime, but safety Tarvarius Moore intercepted Jennings at the goal line to squelch an UL-Lafayette drive that had reached USM's 22-yard line.
The Golden Eagles took a 21-14 lead in the third quarter, driving 75 yards in 11 plays with Mullens finding Staggers in the back of the end zone with a 5-yard pass off play-action.
Mullens wound up completing 25 of 40 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in his final game in a Golden Eagle uniform.
Smith's 1-yard run capped a 14-play, 83-yard drive that straddled the third and fourth quarters and put USM up by two scores with 12:26 to play in the game.
But Travis Crawford intercepted Mullens on USM's next possession, returning it 53 yards to USM's 19-yard line. Jennings made the Golden Eagles pay, scoring his second touchdown on a 3-yard run as UL-Lafayette pulled within 28-21 with 5:10 to play.
The Cajuns got the ball back at their 18-yard line with 2:02 to play. But after a pair of first downs brought them to midfield, a sack by Bradley and junior defensive end Xavier Thigpen put the UL-Lafayette in a hole, staring at 2nd-and-19 with 28 seconds to play.
Jennings got 12 yards back on a pass to Keenan Barnes. But he threw incomplete on third and fourth downs, as the celebration began on the Golden Eagles' sideline with 12 seconds to play.
"It couldn't have worked out any better," said Mullens, who missed two, late-season games because of a concussion but returned to help the Golden Eagles become bowl eligible with a win in the regular-season finale.
"All the hard work, and then the ups and downs of the season, to finish out like this? It couldn't be any more storybook, and I'm just so happy and thankful for all the guys who got to experience it."