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
"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
Southern Miss running back Anthony Harris had 104 yards on 14
carries, and USM finished with a 403-212 advantage in total
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
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