By Jaymes Song/The Associated Press
HONOLULU — As if being 5,500 miles from Hattiesburg and having Waikiki beach as a backyard wasn’t enough, Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi had to deal with even more distractions.
The 22nd-ranked Golden Eagles (11-2) face Western Athletic Conference runner-up Nevada (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl on Saturday in what will be the final game under coach Larry Fedora.
“It’s going to be tough. There’s a piece of my heart and soul in this football team,” said Fedora, who is leaving after four seasons to lead North Carolina. “I deeply care about each and every one of those kids. … But I do know, they’re going to look back at this season and say we won however many games, a conference championship and we went to Hawaii. That’s what they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Southern Miss won a school-record 11 games this season en route to capturing its fifth C-USA title by upsetting Houston 49-28 in the conference championship game behind Austin Davis’ four touchdown passes. It was the Golden Eagles’ first 10-win season since 1988.
Despite the record year, Davis said the team isn’t done yet as Southern Miss makes its 10th straight postseason appearance and is looking to snap a two-bowl losing streak.
“I would hate to end it on a bad note. We want to finish strong and get No. 12,” said Davis, who has thrown for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns this year.
Fedora said his team isn’t letting down after its big win over Houston.
“You can go out and watch practice and you wouldn’t know if it was Aug. 5, the first day of practice for us, or if it was the next to the last practice. They’re still practicing the same way,” he said. “They understand what it takes. They understand how important it is. We’re not playing another game. We’re making history at Southern Miss.”
Fedora is being replaced by South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who was introduced in Hattiesburg while the team was in Honolulu.
“There’s a lot of distractions going on with this football team and their future. So that makes it difficult,” Fedora said. “The thing is, I’ve got to allow these seniors … they’re going to be the ones that lead us through the distractions. I expect us to play as we do week in and week out.”
While Southern Miss is making its first trip here since beating Hawaii in 1977, Nevada is no stranger to the islands, or the Hawaii Bowl.
Nevada is making its seventh straight postseason appearance and 12th overall. It will be playing in the Hawaii Bowl for the third time since 2005. Nevada defeated Central Florida 49-48 in overtime in 2005 and lost to SMU 45-10 in 2009.
“We’ve been here. It’s great and beautiful and we love it here, but for us, it’s a business trip,” Nevada defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “We know what we’re here to do.”
Featuring a high-powered offense that ranks fifth in the nation with 522.8 yards a game and eighth in rushing (251.8), Nevada is coming off a roller coaster year where it started 1-3 and won five straight before losing to Louisiana Tech and Utah State, blowing its chances for a conference title in its final season in the WAC before moving to the Mountain West Conference.
“We want to get that bad taste out of our mouths,” said Roy, who is eighth in the nation in both sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18.5). “In order to do that, we have to go through Southern Miss, which is a high-caliber team.”
Quarterback Cody Fajardo, who didn’t start until the fifth game, runs Nevada’s potent pistol. He has passed for 1,647 yards and six scores while rushing for 680 yards and 11 TDs. Nevada also has Rishard Matthews, who has caught 91 passes for 1,364 yards and eight TDs.
“They gain a lot of yards on the ground and through the air,” said Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton, who leads the team with 104 tackles. “They have a very mobile quarterback that can make plays on his own, even when things may seem like they break down.”
The Wolf Pack will be trying to pressure Davis, who has a quartet of capable running backs and his favorite receivers, Kelvin Bolden and Ryan Balentine.
“When they find something they can do, they exploit it and they do it often,” Roy said. “Our biggest focus is tightening our loose ends and knowing if we do that, they don’t have anything to exploit. So we’ve got to play the most sound football we have this year because we are definitely a huge underdog.”
Nevada coach Chris Ault said Southern Mississippi’s win over Houston is a good example.
“They just destroyed them. That just shows you what kind of football team they are,” he said. “This Austin Davis is as good as we’ve seen. … The defense does a great job getting around the ball. They’re really a fine football team.”
Davis said, “We went out and played well on that day. But we also know if we don’t come ready to play in this game, it can go the other way, too.”
Nevada is hoping Southern Miss had its fill of Hawaii and a week that included a luau and trip to Pearl Harbor.
“Hopefully they’re all swimming, all tired and surfing up a storm,” Roy said.
Fedora said he wants his players to enjoy Hawaii because they have earned it. But they’ll be ready at kickoff.
“They’re enjoying their free time and when it’s time to go, we go,” he said.
Follow Jaymes Song at http://twitter.com/jaymessong
Hawaii Bowl Capsule
HONOLULU (AP) — No. 22 Southern Mississippi (11-2) vs. Nevada (7-5), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Line: Southern Miss by 8.
Series Record: 2-0 Southern Miss.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Southern Miss is seeking a school-record 12th win, trying to snap a two-bowl losing streak and trying to send coach Larry Fedora out with a win. Fedora is leaving for North Carolina after the game. The Golden Eagles also want to prove they are one of the nation’s top teams after their upset win over previously unbeaten Houston for the Conference USA title. Nevada is trying to end on a high note after dropping two of its last three games, which cost the Wolf Pack a chance at the Western Athletic Conference title.
Southern Miss QB Austin Davis vs. Nevada defensive tackle Brett Roy. Roy, the leader of the Nevada defense with 10 sacks, will need to help contain and keep pressure on Davis, who has passed for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns while rushing for 332 yards and four TDs. The Wolf Pack can’t afford to allow Davis to get too comfortable in the pocket, or he’ll pick them apart as he did Houston.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nevada: QB Cody Fajardo. The WAC freshman of the year didn’t start until week five and led the Wolf Pack to five straight wins. He is the trigger man in the pistol and has thrown for 1,647 yards and six TDs while rushing for 680 yards and 11 scores.
Southern Miss: LB Jamie Collins thrived under first-year defensive coordinator Dan Disch, recording 94 tackles, including 19.5 tackles for loss, to go with 6.5 sacks. The former defensive back who moved to linebacker last year is used as a “bandit” who can get down in stance as a lineman or stand.
FACTS & FIGURES
Southern Miss is making its 22nd postseason appearance and is 9-12 overall. … This is the seventh straight bowl appearance for the Wolf Pack. Nevada is 4-7 overall in the postseason. …This will be the third meeting between the schools. The Golden Eagles won 35-19 in Hattiesburg in 1997 and won 55-28 in Reno in 1998. … Southern Miss lost its last two bowl games, including a 31-29 defeat to Louisville in the St. Petersburg Bowl. … With the Hawaii Bowl, the Golden Eagles are one of a dozen teams that have reached the postseason 10 straight years. … Nevada has 18 players on its roster who have already earned degrees including quarterback Tyler Lantrip, who has a Master’s degree. Every senior who came to Nevada as a freshman has graduated. … This will be the final WAC appearance for the Wolf Pack, who are moving to the Mountain West Conference next year.