Golden Eagles fall 44-31 to land just short of 10-win season
By Drew Harris, www.theheartofdallasbowl.com
In its first bowl game since 2011, a reinvigorated Southern Miss football program went toe-to-toe with Washington for nearly three full quarters before the Huskies pulled away for a 44-31 victory Saturday afternoon in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Southern Miss, which matched the nation's biggest improvement in victories by going from 3-9 to 9-5, proved it belonged in its 23rd all-time bowl game and has big things still ahead.
"This is going to sting," Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. "We're a good enough football team. We obviously have another step that we can take, but I'm awfully proud of this team and how far we've come."
The Huskies, led by Bowl MVP Myles Gaskin, denied the Golden Eagles their fourth double-digit win season in school history. Gaskin set bowl records for rushing yards (181) and rushing touchdowns (four).
The freshman's biggest play was a game-changing 86-yard touchdown run with 2:26 left in the third quarter. It came just 21 seconds after USM had knotted the score at 24, and put Washington (7-6) on top for good.
"It was a game of momentum," Monken said. "He's a good player and we just didn't get him on the ground."
Offensively, the Golden Eagles' 31 points equaled the number scored by Rose Bowl-bound Stanford as the second most allowed by Washington all season. The only team to score more against the Pac-12's top-ranked defense was Utah (34), and the Huskies had yielded just 17 points in their previous two games combined.
At the center of the offensive fireworks was USM senior wide receiver Mike Thomas. Thomas caught nine passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, setting the school's single-season receiving touchdown record (14) in the process.
He finished the season with 1,391 yards, another Southern Miss record. His receiving yardage total ranks second in the six-year history of the bowl game.
"I don't care about stats because, at the end of the day, it's a team sport," Thomas said. "I tried my best to help my team win, and we fell short. So I'm disappointed."
His final catch was a 27-yard score from Nick Mullens with 5:22 left that pulled USM to within 10 (41-31).
After a failed onside kick, the USM defense wasn't able to get the Huskies' offense off the field, however. UW iced the game with a 10-play drive that resulted in a 23-yard field goal.
Washington totaled 580 yards of offense (296 rushing, 284 passing) and logged five drives of at least nine plays on the afternoon.
"I came to Southern Miss for these kinds of opportunities for bowl games and championship games," Mullens said. "I'd like to see a team that's closer than us. We have a group of guys that love each other and fight for anything. It's unfortunate we had to end this way, but we gave it all we got."
Mullens, a junior, was 25 of 38 for 331 yards and the pair of touchdowns to Thomas on a day that USM needed its full aerial attack.
Senior running back Jalen Richard, who carried for more than 1,000 yards during the regular season, did not play due to a shoulder injury. In his absence, fellow 1,000-yard rusher Ito Smith had a pair of scores, but the Golden Eagles managed just 22 rushing yards for the game.
Washington never trailed in the contest. Its first score was a Gaskin touchdown that capped a 12-play drive with 5:16 left in the first quarter.
Thomas' first touchdown went 56 yards and tied the score at 7-7. It was his 10th straight game with a touchdown catch.
Down 21-10 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, USM used a trick play to gain momentum. Faced with a fourth-and-5 from its own 25-yard line, USM executed a fake punt with a pass by Tyler Sarrazin to Curtis Mikell for a 22-yard gain.
Just three plays later, Thomas emerged again, hauling in a 36-yard pass to the 1-yard line. Smith then bulled his way in from a yard out. As a result, Washington led 21-17 at halftime.
"My hat's off to Washington," Monken said. "They have a good football team. We just, obviously, didn't play our best defensively."
The four-year seniors closed out a career that included 0-12, 1-11 and 3-9 seasons with a strong showing in Dallas to close a 9-5 campaign.
"They've left quite an impression on all of us and a legacy that we have to live up to," Monken said. "They will always be revered."