NCF Nation: 2011 Hawaii Bowl

Instant analysis: S. Miss 24, Nevada 17

December, 24, 2011

No. 21 Southern Miss beat Nevada 24-17 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Saturday night. Here is a quick breakdown of how it happened:

How the game was won: One definitive drive. Incredibly, two of the most potent offenses in the nation slogged through most of this game. Special teams were a mess on both sides -- Nevada had a punt blocked and lost a fumble on a kickoff; Southern Miss lost fumbles on a kickoff and a punt return. Midway through the fourth quarter, each team had more punts than first downs. But finally, the Golden Eagles woke up with seven minutes to play. Austin Davis fired a 43-yard pass to Dominique Sullivan. Davis completed the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Bolden. It was the longest drive of the game for the Golden Eagles.

Turning point: The 43-yard pass to Sullivan might not have gone for a big play had Nevada defensive back Isaiah Frey not gambled. Frey went for the interception and missed, allowing Sullivan to race 20 more yards.

Player of the game: Southern Miss defensive end Cordarro Law. After Nevada gashed Southern Miss on the ground in the first half, Law helped his teammates put an end to that. He had a huge impact in the second half, and ended the game with seven tackles (three for loss) and two sacks.

Second guessing: Nevada had a chance to answer the go-ahead Southern Miss score. On fourth-and-1 from midfield with 4:01 to go, coach Chris Ault called a running play between the tackles. The Wolf Pack had early success running in that direction, but they had been stymied the entire second half. Lampford Mark was tackled for no gain, and that did it for Nevada. After Mark had 162 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, he had 22 after the break.

What it means for Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles won a school-record 12 games to cap the best season in school history. But now they have to move on without coach Larry Fedora and record-setting quarterback Davis. Fedora moves on to North Carolina, while Davis will try for a shot in the NFL. Both were instrumental in this team's success this season.

What it means for Nevada: The Wolf Pack played their final game in the WAC, as they head to the Mountain West in 2012. They are now 0-4 in their past four appearances in Aloha Stadium and continue to have key breakdowns on defense late in games. In its past three defeats, Nevada has either been tied or had a lead in the fourth quarter, and lost. Cody Fajardo was benched in the second half in favor of Tyler Lantrip because he was ineffective, so the Wolf Pack are going to need much more consistency out of him if he is to lead this team going forward.
Nevada (7-5) takes on No. 21 Southern Miss (11-2) in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Saturday night in Honolulu. The Wolf Pack are quite familiar with their surroundings in Aloha Stadium, as they are making their fourth straight trip to the islands for a game. They are 0-3 in their past three appearances (two losses to Hawaii in regular-season play, one loss to SMU in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl). Meanwhile, Southern Miss stunned Houston in the Conference USA championship game and is making its 10th straight bowl appearance. That is tied with Boise State for the longest active streak among non-AQ schools.

Who to watch: Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis. What Davis has accomplished in his Southern Miss career truly is remarkable. He walked onto the team with no guarantee of getting playing time, but became a four-year starter and broke all of Brett Favre's passing records. Davis now has career marks of 10,727 passing yards, 81 touchdown passes, a 61.6 completion percentage, and 12,082 total offensive yards. His impressive career earned him the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the best player in the nation who began his career as a walk-on. He can run, too, and was second on the team with 101 carries.

What to watch: How Cody Fajardo leads Nevada. The Wolf Pack have been an incredibly inconsistent team this season. They had a heck of a nonconference schedule and changed quarterbacks, deciding to go with the redshirt freshman. He has made plays, completing 71.4 percent of his passes, but he also has taken his share of lumps and has been called out for not fighting through injuries. Nevada was in position to win the WAC but lost at home to Louisiana Tech, ending the season with losses in two of its final three games. In fact, Nevada is one of four teams in the postseason that did not beat a bowl-eligible team all year.

Why to watch: This is the last game for Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora, who was hired to be the head coach at North Carolina. Fedora led this team to its first 10-win regular season since 1952 -- only the third time the mark has been reached in school history. The Golden Eagles also reappeared in the national polls for the first time since 2004, and won their first C-USA division title since 2006. This is a coach who elevated the program, and allowing him to coach one final game is a nice tribute.

Prediction: Southern Miss 35, Nevada 20. The Golden Eagles have the superior offense and defense, and truly are one of the better teams in the country this season. They will prove it in Hawaii.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Nevada Wolf Pack (7-5) vs. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (11-2)

Dec. 24, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Nevada take: Coming off a 13-1 record-breaking season, the Wolfpack started this season 6-3 and in control of the Western Athletic Conference, looking to clinch their second straight conference title. Then they blew a 20-3 home lead to eventual conference champion Louisiana Tech, and they lost by four at Utah State the next week, too. Running back Mike Ball was kicked off the team prior to the Utah State team for violating team rules. He had 704 yards and three touchdowns and was a force on kickoff returns as well.

A brutal four-game road stretch to open the season -- which included games against Oregon and Boise State -- led to a 1-3 start, with the lone win coming by three at San Jose State.

Freshman Cody Fajardo emerged as the starting quarterback over Tyler Lantrip and has completed better than 71 percent of his passes for 1,647 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 680 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nevada scored at least 37 points in five straight games with Fajardo under center. After two straight losses, the Wolfpack closed the season with a 56-3 win Saturday over Idaho. Their rushing offense, keyed by Chris Ault's vaunted pistol attack, ranks eighth nationally. They averaged more than 522 total yards per game, good for fifth nationally.

Southern Miss take: There's a reason Larry Fedora's name has been mentioned so often for other job openings. He had already led the Golden Eagles to their first 10-win season since 1952 and only their third in school history. It then all culminated with a 49-28 thrashing of undefeated Houston in Saturday's Conference USA title game, giving the Golden Eagles their first-ever 11-win season.

Southern Miss is going bowling for the 10th straight year, the longest active streak in the conference. That is thanks in large part to the play of quarterback Austin Davis, who has re-written the school record books and threw four touchdown passes in the victory over the Cougars. He now has the single-season school record for touchdown passes (28) and passing yards (3,331).

Ronnie Thornton's 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday was Southern Miss' eighth pick-six of the year, an NCAA record. The defense's quick adjustment to first-year coordinator Dan Disch and his 4-2-5 look has paid dividends early.

"We knew in making that change that there wouldn't be time for a learning curve so we told the kids, 'There is not time for a learning curve you’re going to have to spend whatever free time you have learning this system as quickly as possible,' " Fedora said last week. "They all bought in. They were excited about it and they learned it very quickly you have to give credit to Dan Disch and the defensive staff for making things simple."