Western Kentucky (11-2, 8-0 Conference USA) needed some big plays late in the first half to pull even with Southern Mississippi (9-3, 7-1 Conference USA), but it was all Hilltoppers in the second half as the home team captured its first Conference USA championship in school history.
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty passed for 410 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another score in the conference championship victory. Western Kentucky’s defense made plays as well, forcing four Southern Mississippi turnovers in the win. That included three interceptions of Nick Mullens. For WKU, Doughty’s top target was Taywan Taylor, who ended the game with 165 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. D’Andre Ferby helped ice the game for Western Kentucky with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Western Kentucky added on to its school record for wins in a single season since jumping up to the FBS by picking up its 11th win of the season. Before winning 10 game sin the regular season this fall, the most wins WKU had in a season since making the move up was eight wins, which were earned each of the past two seasons.
The result of the win could also help keep WKU head coach Jeff Brohm on the radar for future coaching searches. Brohm will get a chance to pick up his second bowl win in as many seasons as a head coach.
Despite taking the loss in the conference championship game, there should be no reason to be disappointed at Southern Mississippi. Head coach Todd Monken has done an admirable job turning things around with the program since taking over in 2013. A year after Larry Fedora left for UNC after winning the Conference USA championship, Southern Miss went 0-12 in 2012. Monken won just one game in his first season and three game sin his second. The foundation appeared to be laid and the growing pains worked out for a nine-win season this fall and a chance to win a 10th game once again in a bowl game.
Former Michigan running back Justice Hayes is heading south. Hayes took to Twitter Tuesday to confirm his decision to transfer to Southern Mississippi for this upcoming season. As a graduate transfer, Hayes will be eligible to play right away for the Conference USA program in need of all the help it can get.
Hayes was fifth on the Michigan roster in rushing last season with 213 yards on 48 rushing attempts. The Michigan backfield is a crowded bunch heading into the 2015 season, but Hayes may have a chance to have a bit more of an impact at Southern Miss. The Eagles return their top two rushers from 2014 with Ito Smith (536 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns) and George Paynes (271 yards, 6 touchdowns), but Hayes and his veteran presence could be a benefit on and off the field.
Southern Miss won just three games last year, but that was an increase from the one win it recorded the previous season. Southern Miss has fallen hard since Larry Fedora coached the program to a 12-2 record in 2011, but Todd Monken is still putting the pieces together and building something that can compete for a Conference USA title once again.
Southern Mississippi upset Houston, coached by Kevin Sumlin with quarterback Case Keenum, for the Conference USA championship two seasons ago. The Eagles, coached by Larry Fedora, then capped that 12-2 season with a victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. Then everything changed. Fedora went to North Carolina and since then the Eagles have not won a single game. Dubious owners of the longest losing streak in the country, Southern Mississippi has now lost 18 straight games. Eventually that streak will come to an end, but for now the program seems to need all of the support it can get.
Fortunately Southern Mississippi football players have to have a student body that is not turning their backs on them. While Alabama students may feel spoiled by the embarrassment of riches and success and leave games early, Southern Mississippi students rallied together to show their support for the football team at Thursday’s practice.
After a quick announcement from head coach Todd Monken, the team was greeted on the field by a chanting student body and soon surrounded for words of encouragement.
Southern Mississippi hosts North Texas this weekend for their annual homecoming game. North Texas will come in to the weekend having won two straight games, against Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. Beating the Mean Green may not be easy for Southern Mississippi but this losing streak has to end at some point. Why not this weekend?