Southern Miss, Louisiana-Lafayette clash in New Orleans Bowl (Dec 17, 2016)
NEW ORLEANS -- That Southern Miss and the University of Louisiana have had up-and-down football seasons is obvious.
Both teams are 6-6 and barely bowl eligible, but the two interstate neighbors will face each other moving in the right direction in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Saturday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Southern Miss, which finished 4-4 in Conference USA, has quarterback Nick Mullens back at full strength after the talented gunslinger dislocated a bone in his right (throwing) thumb in a 55-32 loss at Texas-San Antonio on Oct. 8 and then suffered a concussion later in the season.
Louisiana-Lafayette, which had an inconsistent offense led by LSU transfer quarterback Anthony Jennings, won four of its last six games and its last three Sun Belt Conference games to finish 5-3 in league play.
Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Mullens showed remarkable toughness in the game against Texas-San Antonio, telling the USM medical staff to push the bone in his right thumb back into place and tape it up. He returned to the game and threw a touchdown pass to close the gap to 48-32 midway through the fourth quarter.
"It's the most amazing thing from a quarterback that I've seen," Hopson said. "He was throwing some balloon balls out there, but the bottom line is that's the competitor in him. He's a young man who kept fighting and battling. ... (Now) he's 100 percent."
Mullens then suffered a concussion in a 38-27 loss to Charlotte on Nov. 5 and sat out the next two games. Despite missing three games, Mullens completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The Rajin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette played consistently on defense all season -- led by linebackers Otha Peters and Tre'maine Lightfoot -- but the offense has finally shown signs of life, said coach Mark Hudspeth. Running back Elijah McGuire has had three consecutive seasons of rushing for at least 1,000 yards (215 carries, 1,028 yards this season), and Jennings, the LSU transfer, finally seems to be settling in.
"This is an exciting time for our team, especially since we feel we're peaking and playing our best ball of the year," Hudspeth said. "Anthony Jennings has been up and down, but I like the way he's kept working and kept a good attitude and the way he's progressed. You've certainly seen the last four or five weeks what it would have looked like if he had a spring or a summer with our guys."
Although the bowl game is flying below the radar, both teams' fans bases are within 130 miles of New Orleans and should travel well. Hudspeth said his fans have been forgiving for a viral internet video in November in which four Rajin' Cajun players were seen chanting lyrics from a song expressing a strong distaste for Donald Trump.
"There were some things said that (we) didn't mean, and we apologized," Hudspeth said. "Those were hard times, but so many fans reached out to us. One person told me, 'Tough times don't last. Tough people do.' Our team has been tough in overcoming adversity."