NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - The Southern Miss Golden Eagles hung on for a 28-21 win over the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday night.
For the first few minutes of the game, the only thing that seemed to go wrong for Southern Miss was referee Tom Stapleton announcing, "Timeout Mississippi State," which drew an immediate jeer from the Golden Eagles faithful.
Other than that, it was a phenomenal start for USM, which jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Louisiana due to Ito Smith's two touchdowns -- one rushing and one receiving.
Louisiana (6-7) eventually tied it 14-14 going into halftime. By that point, Southern Miss junior wide receiver Allenzae Staggers already set a bowl record with 202 receiving yards, and his defensive teammate Ja'Boree Poole notched three first-half sacks.
"Coming from a small 3A school, this is a great experience, man," said Staggers, who was named New Orleans Bowl MVP. "Playing in the Superdome? Man, I was kind of nervous at the beginning of the game but I caught a few balls and I was in my zone."
Staggers' 11 receptions and 230 receiving yards were New Orleans Bowl records, and he also added a touchdown catch to break the 14-14 tie in the third quarter.
Smith's 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth extended USM's lead to 28-14 with 12:26 left.
Despite a passing game that struggled mightily for Louisiana (6-7), the Cajuns forced an interception to set up great field position and an eventual 3-yard touchdown run from quarterback Anthony Jennings late in the fourth to cut the score to 28-21.
After forcing USM to punt, Louisiana had one more opportunity to try for the game-tying touchdown, but Jennings and the Cajuns offense still couldn't pass their way down the field before eventually turning the ball over on downs.
Southern Miss outgained Louisiana 481-252, including a 346-95 advantage in the passing game.
"It's fair to say we wanted to put the ball in the air a little bit," Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson said. "At the end of the day, our guys kept fighting and that's what I'm most proud of. We made some explosive plays, and I thought defensively we didn't give up many explosive plays and I thought that was a big difference."
Southern Miss tallied a New Orleans Bowl-record six sacks -- three by Poole, one by Dylan Bradley and another by D'Nerius Antoine before Bradley combined with Xavier Thigpen for the only sack on the Cajuns' final drive.
"This whole senior class, we came in 1-11, 0-12, and to finish like this is really a blessing," USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens said. "We didn't get a championship this year, but it feels like we won one tonight being the New Orleans Bowl champs."
Mullens completed 25 of 40 passes for 346 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the final game of his Southern Miss career.
"A lot of emotions, mixed emotions knowing this is the last game I'll ever play in the black and gold," Bradley said. "I'm just grateful to be here with some of my teammates to experience this. I don't know how to put it into words. It's just an amazing feeling knowing I can call myself a champion."
A crowd of 35,061 witnessed Southern Miss win its first bowl game since 2011 and end the season with back-to-back wins.