Southern Mississippi 31, North Texas 10
NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Michael Boley was supposed to blitz, but pulled up in a timely moment of recognition, poised to jump for the screen pass he suspected was coming his way.
“They ran the same play earlier in the game … and threw it right by me,” the Southern Mississippi linebacker recalled. “I just kind of stopped, got in the throwing lane and luckily he threw it to me.”
Boley stretched for a two-handed grab and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, breaking open what would wind up a 31-10 Southern Miss victory over North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl on Tuesday night.
Boley, named MVP of the first bowl of the postseason, made eight tackles, including two sacks.
Dustin Almond threw for 247 yards. He had a touchdown pass and ran for another score in the opening quarter, giving Southern Miss an early lead it never relinquished in its first bowl victory in four years.
“We wanted to come out and make a statement on those opening drives,” Almond said. “We kind of got in a rut there in the third quarter, but Boley made a big play and brought the momentum back. That gave the offense some confidence and we went out there and ran the football.”
Southern Miss running back Anthony Harris had 104 yards on 14 carries, and USM finished with a 403-212 advantage in total yardage.
North Texas’ season had been defined by overcoming adversity. Quarterback Andrew Smith died in a car accident just before training camp, starting running back Patrick Cobbs injured his knee in the second game of the season and never returned, and the Mean Green lost their first four games before winning seven straight to earn their fourth straight trip to the New Orleans Bowl.
But Southern Miss (7-5), which narrowly lost to No. 4 California earlier this month, outplayed North Texas throughout.
North Texas, the four-time Sun Belt Conference champion, dropped to 1-3 in the New Orleans Bowl. Tailback Jamario Thomas, who missed North Texas’ final regular-season game with a sore hamstring, finished with 92 yards on 30 carries. His season total of 1,801 fell 62 yards short of former Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne’s freshman record of 1,863 yards.
Thomas entered the game averaging 189.9 yards, but struggled against Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles pulled him down for several losses as he rushed for minus-13 yards in the third quarter.
Thomas still ended his season averaging 179.9 yards, surpassing the previous freshman record of 158.8 yards set by Marshall Faulk of San Diego State in 1991.
USM also sacked North Texas quarterback Scott Hall six times and once forced him to rush a third-and-goal throw that sailed over the outstretched arms of a wide-open Beau Davidson in the end zone. The play forced the Mean Green to settle for Nick Bazaldua’s 24-yard field goal. That was their only score until Hall’s 10-yard scoring pass to Johnny Quinn with one second left.
“The biggest thing they did defensively was sending rovers off the outside edges, which gave us problems in the running and passing games,” North Texas coach Darrell Dickey said. “We didn’t play our best football. We couldn’t run like we’re accustomed to.”
Hall was held to just 57 yards passing through three quarters. He finished 15-of-30 for 134 yards and two interceptions.
“They brought it today,” Hall said. “Guys were coming off the edge all night. They took away our play-action game.”
Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said his defense seemed energized by a game plan that required it to get in the backfield quickly or risk being burned by the pass.
“There was a couple times they had a shot to maybe get a couple big plays. The key was getting pressure on the quarterback and make him throw quick,” Bower said. “I think sometimes when you do that you get a little more effort. When you blitz and go fast you maybe pick up the tempo a little bit.”
Through the first three quarters, North Texas remained in the game with crucial third-down tackles in its own territory, forcing Southern Miss to settle for four field-goal attempts.
Darren McCaleb, who was 15-for-15 this season, was wide with three attempts, allowing the Mean Green to stay within two touchdowns heading into the final quarter.
Then Boley, whose first-half sack led to a failed 50-yard North Texas field-goal attempt, scored on his interception to give Southern Miss a 24-3 lead with 12:52 remaining.
Almond passed for 112 yards in the first quarter, completing a pair of long passes on consecutive scoring drives. His 37-yarder down the left sideline to Otho Graves, who broke a tackle inside the 10-yard line, put Southern Miss ahead 7-0.
On the Golden Eagles’ next drive, Almond threw a 47-yard pass over the middle to Tavarrez Williams, who was tackled at the North Texas 4. Almond scored on a 1-yard keeper three plays later.
McCaleb’s 45-yard field goal gave the Golden Eagles a 17-3 halftime lead.