Southern Miss football's inspiring turnaround led to Heart of Da - - The News for South Mississippi

Southern Miss football's inspiring turnaround led to Heart of Dallas Bowl appearance


For Southern Miss football, it was hard to find a better destination than Dallas for a bowl game.

The Golden Eagles (9-4) will meet the Washington Huskies (6-6) in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl Sat., Dec. 26. It's the first bowl game since the 2011 season when USM won the Conference USA championship and then held off Nevada 24-17 in the Hawai'i Bowl on Christmas Eve that year.

USM fans love to talk about just how far the football program has come since the 0-12 performance during Ellis Johnson's one season as head coach in 2012.

It really hasn't been that long since the team tallied 20 wins during the 2010-11 seasons, but the 32 losses in the following three years led to feelings that wins would come as easy as catching a fish with your bare hands.

Even when Southern Miss went 3-9 during Todd Monken's second year as head coach of the Golden Eagles, Monken gave USM supporters something in which to believe. The losses weren't nearly as bad or frequent, and it was evident that the players believed that they were turning a corner.

Entering Monken's third season at the helm, a bowl game was no longer a laughable goal. But nine wins, a Conference USA West Division championship, a conference title game appearance and a chance for a 10th win in 14 tries is surprising and remarkable, yet proof that a coach, his supporting staff and players can find success in a hurry.

"Everybody wants to follow a winner," Monken said. "That's just the way it is. No one likes to follow a loser. You can't fly your flags and say you're a fan of Southern Miss unless they're winning. That's just the way it is. I don't care where you're at. It's our job to put the product on the field, our people want to be proud of and they want to come see."

This year's turnaround features a record-breaking offense that set new single-season records for points (528), touchdowns (67), total offensive yards (6,758), completions (312) and passing yards (4,263).

But they'll have to play in the bowl game without second-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who left for Arizona State after accepting the same role.

John Wozniak was promoted from special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach, and will call the offensive plays against Washington despite Monken's offensive resume. 

"We're going to continue to do what we do offensively," Monken said. "Now, how John calls the offense compared to Chip, there's always going to be a difference, but the reality is we have good players, preparation and let it rip.

"[Wozniak] is smart, he's unbelievable at preparation, studying film and is a great teacher. We'll find out when he's calling it."

Wozniak has a plethora of weapons on offense, including junior quarterback Nick Mullens, who now holds USM's single-season records for completions (306), passing yards (4,146) and touchdown passes (36). He was also a finalist for the Conerly Trophy, which is given annually to the best player in the state of Mississippi.

Senior running back Jalen Richard and junior offensive lineman Cameron Tom were both named to the Conference USA First Team, and few arguments would've initiated had second-teamers Mullens and senior wide receiver Mike Thomas been honored as well.

Thomas has been the most dependable wideout, hauling in 62 passes and setting a school single-season record with 1,201 receiving yards. His 12 touchdown catches also helped him earn a spot in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Jan. 23.

Southern Miss Director of Athletics Bill McGillis is expecting at least 3,000 USM supporters to make a trip to the Cotton Bowl, and it could be more as more plans are finalized among fans in Mississippi, and even the Southern Miss alumni in Texas.

"It's obvious the spirit from everybody that cares about the Golden Eagles has been lifted," McGillis said. "People are feeling great inside, outside and around the program."

Prior to accepting a bid to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Southern Miss was also projected to play in either the New Orleans Bowl Dec. 19, or the Miami Beach Bowl Dec. 21. 

McGillis was quick to admit that Texas was the ideal playing spot.

"We didn't have a vote on where to go, but we gave our preferences to the commissioner and Dallas was on the top of our list," McGillis said. "We wanted to play the most high-profile opponent we could."

Washington has just as many wins as losses this season, but three of the Pac-12 member's defeats have come by 10 points or less. Some of the highlights include wins over USC and Arizona, and a 16-13 loss to Boise State.

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