FORT WORTH, Texas (WDAM) _ For a long while Saturday morning, the University of Southern Mississippi was having its way with Tulane University at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Until it wasn’t.
“We kind of had a disasterous third quarter,” USM coach Jay Hopson said, “Tulane made plays offensively and made some explosives (plays).
“We had some mental errors. They made some explosive plays, and in football, explosive plays kill you.”
Trailing 13-6 at halftime, Tulane senior quarterback Justin McMillan threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a decisive third quarter alone as the Green Wave prevailed 30-13 before an announced 38,513 in a revival of long-dormant series in the 17th annual Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
“I live right down the road,” said McMillan, a Dallas native. “It’s literally a Cinderella story for me, to say the least.”
USM (7-6) ended the season on a three-game losing streak and saw a six-game winning streak against Tulane snapped.
The teams had not played since 2010, and prior to Saturday, Tulane’s last win over the Golden Eagles came in 2002.
The loss also meant that the Golden Eagles coughed up ownership of “The Bell,” a large, portable bell, with half painted Tulane and half painted USM that is held by the winner of the latest game.
Tulane (7-6), which snapped a three-game losing streak, won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in the program's 115-year history. The Green Wave also logged consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1997-98.
“It was huge,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said of the victory. “We were disappointed in how we finished … We had to keep climbing that mountain.”
McMillan, who finished with 215 passing yards and three touchdowns, was named the Green Wave’s Most Valuable Player. McMillan tied his career high for touchdown passes and also finished second among the Wave’s ballcarriers with 41 yards on 17 carries.
USM junior receiver Quez Watkins, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, was named Golden Eagles' MVP. The yards were second-most in the bowl’s history, and the catches tied for third.
Watkins, who tweeted postgame that he intended to forego his senior season to enter the 2020 National Football League draft, finished with 1,178 receiving yards on 64 catches this season, the third-most yards in a USM single season.
USM scored on its first two possessions, then was shut out, as Tulane put up 30 points unanswered.
Watkins caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Jack Abraham on the game’s opening drive and Abraham followed up on USM's next possession with a 3-yard touchdown run to give the Golden Eagles a 13-0 lead after the first quarter.
Abraham hit 11 of his first 14 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown over USM’s first two drives. His 3-yard scoring run gave him a team-high six rushing touchdowns on the season.
USM, who already had lost senior running back De’Michael Harris to a leg injury earlier in the game, would suffer through its least productive quarter of the season, netting just 38 yards in the second period. The previous slimmest quarter had been 40 yards in the first period against Rice University.
Abraham would finish out the half 6-of-9 for another 25 yards, but see his game end on the final offensive play of the first half, when he was hammered attempting to pass by Tulane senior linebacker Lawrence Graham.
“We had a perfect play called up,” Graham said. “Coach (Jack) Curtis (Tulane defensive coordinator) called up the right play and I was just free. Full speed ahead.”
At the time, Tulane also was struggling against USM’s defense. Junior Merek Glover got the Green Wave within 13-6 at halftime with a pair of 31-yard field goals to account for Tulane’s first-half output.
The six points matched the Green Wave’s fewest in a half this season (six against Auburn University) and Tulane’s 74 yards over the first two quarters were the fewest in a half this season.
That all changed in the second half.
McMillan tied the game by opening the third quarter with a 52-yard TD pass to senior Jalen McCleskey, and Glover gave the Wave the lead for good, 16-13, on a 36-yard field goal with 5 minutes, 20 seconds, left in the quarter.
McMillan then dropped the hammer on USM’s hopes.
Following a USM turnover, McMillan found junior Jacob Robertson with a 7-yard zip-line in the right flat of the end zone just 53 seconds after Glover’s score.
It was the first touchdown of Robertson’s career.
A third scoring toss followed less than 4 minutes later, a nicely-designed, influence play that had the defense moving with McMillan, who stopped rolling, pivoted to his right and found wide-open sophomore running back Amare Jones in the end zone for the final points of the game.
“This senior class won two straight bowl games, and that’s the first time Tulane has ever done that,” McMillan said. “It was a great experience and a good win for our team.”
Tulane outgained USM 214 yards to 49 yards in the third quarter, wound up edging the Golden Eagles 379 yards total offensive vs. USM’s 359 total yards.
Tate Whatley replaced Abraham in a second half that saw USM held scoreless and manage just 160 yards.
Whatley, who had appeared in only two games this season prior to Saturday, completed 9-of-22 passes for 134 yards with two interceptions. The first, by sophomore safety Larry Brooks, set up McMillan’s second TD pass and his second to junior safety Chase Kuerschen with 49 seconds to play closed the door on USM.