NEW ORLEANS, LA - A 55-yard strike from senior quarterback Nick Mullens to junior Allenzae Staggers on USM's first play from scrimmage and the Golden Eagles were rolling. The Ragin' Cajuns didn't know who to stop between Staggers and junior running back Ito Smith dashing through the dome and leading Southern Miss to its first bowl win since 2011.
"It's really just important, myself and the receivers to just come to play, focus," Mullens said. "Coach [Jay Hopson]'s always talking about precision and that's what it's all about."
"We executed," Staggers said. "We executed the plays, we took our time, we had great precision and I just was open."
Staggers found himself open several times, hauling in 11 balls for 230 yards, both New Orleans Bowl records.
Just when Louisiana-Lafayette thought it had USM's air assault in check, Southern Miss would hand it off to Smith who carried it 26 times for 138 yards, juking his way to 1,459 yards in 2016.
"In the second half, defenses usually wear down," Smith said. "And our guys just turned up and took it to another level. The offensive line did a great job, we had the pass game, we were just clicking on all cylinders. We went out, got the [win], finished the season on a good note."
"A lot of times they had six-man boxes and [Smith]'s still getting yards so you have to give him a lot of credit," Hopson said.
Although Southern Miss will lose the school's all-time leader in passing yards (11,994) and passing touchdowns (87) in Nick Mullens, the future of the Golden Eagles looks bright with the playmakers returning.
Based on his prediction for 2017, Staggers couldn't agree more.
"Undefeated," Staggers said. "Hattiesburg, undefeated. This is just the beginning."