So. Miss, UL Lafayette persevered to reach New Orleans Bowl

FILE - In a Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 file photo, Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens (9) drops back to pass against LSU during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La. Southern Miss QB Nick Mullens is the Golden Eagles all-time passing leader with 11,648 yards. The senior is healthy after playing with an injured thumb earlier this season and then missing a couple late-season games with a concussion.(AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Southern Miss all-time leading quarterback Nick Mullens and prolific Louisiana-Lafayette running back Elijah McGuire expected the final season of their college careers to be considerably better.

That doesn't mean they haven't been gratified by what they and their teams have overcome, defying late-season odds with clutch performances to earn invitations to Saturday night's New Orleans Bowl.

''It's really a humbling experience. Nothing in a college career is ever going to go perfect. I'm glad the way we persevered,'' Mullens said. ''The fact we earned our spot here is definitely something we're proud of.''

To gain bowl eligibility, the Golden Eagles (6-6) had to win their final game against favored Louisiana Tech. Mullens, who'd missed two games because of a concussion, returned for the regular season finale and completed 88 percent of his passes (29 of 33) for 342 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-24 triumph . The Ragin' Cajuns (6-6) had to win their last two games - not to mention four of their last six.

''I'm glad we could pull that off,'' McGuire said. ''Life is unfair, things happen. Everybody's got to go through adversity, overcome obstacles.''

Some fans might be inclined to scoff at the idea of a bowl game from which the loser is guaranteed a losing record. The participants don't see it that way because there are so many variables in football - from untimely injuries to bad bounces - which can undermine the seasons of otherwise good football teams. In the case of Southern Miss, Mullens struggled with a mid-season thumb injury even before his concussion.

''The bone is showing and he says, 'Tape it and I think I can play,''' Golden Eagles coach Jay Hopson recalled. ''It took him about two or three weeks (to get healthy). Then he got knocked out.''

The Cajuns, meanwhile, lost one early season game at Tulane in four overtimes and another at New Mexico State in double OT.

''I see a great matchup,'' UL Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. ''It's two teams that have overcome a lot this year.''

Here are some other things to watch in the 16th New Orleans Bowl:

REGIONAL RIVALS: While Southern Miss plays in Conference USA and ULL in the Sun Belt Conference, these programs have history because of their proximity to one another. They've played 51 times, with the Golden Eagles dominating the series, 39-11-1, including victories in the past eight meetings. Each campus is within a two-and-a-half-hour drive of New Orleans, so attendance is expected to be solid. ''It's two teams close together regionally. Our fan bases are familiar with one another,'' Hudspeth said. ''That's going to bring some intensity to the game.''

STRENGTH ON STRENGTH: McGuire, has rushed for 1,028 yards and seven TDs this season, and has 4,213 yards rushing for his career, which ranks second all-time at ULL. Southern Miss ranks 18th nationally in total defense (331 yards allowed per game). ''You've got one team that can run the ball, a running back that runs the ball pretty well and you've got a defense that stops the run well. So that's the game we play,'' Hopson said. ''It certainly will be a battle out there Saturday night and we understand that.''

TRANSFER QB: Cajuns QB Anthony Jennings is a former LSU starter who transferred after losing his job to Brandon Harris, who has since lost his job to Danny Etling. In his first and last season at Louisiana-Lafayette, Jennings has completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,083 yards and 11 TDs. ''I had some bumpy roads early in the season, but I think I'm coming along well,'' said Jennings, normally a mobile quarterback who was slowed by an ankle injury this season. ''I'm back to 100 percent right now and running the football better than ever.''

TIMELY STOPS: Southern Miss' third-down defense ranks second nationally after allowing conversions on just 34 of 142 attempts (24 percent). Likewise, the Golden Eagles are tied for third national in first downs allowed (172). Southern Miss defensive lineman Dylan Bradley says third-down defense is as much about mindset as anything, and calls his unit a ''nasty bunch.''

DOMECOMING: This marks each team's fifth New Orleans Bowl, in which Southern Miss is 3-1 and UL Lafayette was 4-0 until vacating 2011 and 2013 victories because of self-reported recruiting violations.


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