USM's attention turns to New Orleans

Southern Miss began the 2009 football season on a high note with a 3-0 start.

However, they didn’t finish as strong when the Golden Eagles posted a 4-5 record down the stretch and missed out on playing in the Conference USA Championship Game.

That meant the Golden Eagles also missed out on a chance to play in the Liberty Bowl for the first time since 2003.

But everything wasn’t lost because Southern Miss, at 7-5, will play in the New Orleans Bowl for the second straight year and fourth time overall on Dec. 20 against Middle Tennessee at the Louisiana Superdome.

The bowl invitation will mark the school’s 12th bowl appearance in 13 seasons for a program that has 16 consecutive winning seasons.

For a pair of South Mississippi players, Damion Fletcher and DeAndre Brown, the New Orleans Bowl is bittersweet.

In Fletcher’s case, the senior from Biloxi has one last chance to reach 1,000 rushing yards. The 5-10, 185-pound Fletcher needs 63 yards against the Blue Raiders to become the eighth back to rush for 1,000 in each of his four seasons.

The downside for Fletcher, the school’s all-time leading rusher, is that he will leave Southern Miss with no championship.

”I am happy to be going back to New Orleans and playing close to home,” Fletcher said. “We hit a few bumps this year and we had missed opportunities that cost us some games. We felt we should have played in the championship game, but we didn’t. It’s hard knowing I never won a championship.”

”We want to get that bad taste (losing to East Carolina) out of our mouth and the best way to do that is to win the next game, As far as the 63 yards, I want that. I will talk to the offensive line before that game and tell then that I have to have it.”

For Brown, a sophomore wide receiver from Ocean Springs, the New Orleans Bowl marks a major low of his young career.

In last season’s 30-27 win against Troy, Brown broke his leg and didn’t fully recover until the final two weeks of the 2009 season.

Despite the injury, Brown led the the Golden Eagles with 43 receptions, 720 yards and seven touchdowns.

”At first, I was not happy because I almost had a career-ending injury at the Dome,” Brown said. “That will always be in the back of mind. But my mom called me and said you can’t dwell in the past. You have to move forward and that’s what I am going to do.”

As far as the 7-5 record, Brown said it was a disappointment because the Golden Eagles lost a fourth-quarter lead at Louisville and had chances to beat Houston, Kansas, UAB and East Carolina late only to come up short.

The 25-20 loss at East Carolina sent the Pirates to the C-USA Championship Game as East Division champs.

That game featured a blocked extra point attempt that was returned for two points and a missed field goal in the third quarter and two break downs on offense, including a fumble inside the Pirates five-yard line.

”We are disappointed because we are suppose to be in Memphis,” Brown said. “We cost ourselves against East Carolina. They did not beat us, we beat ourselves.

”We could have gone undefeated. We had three or four games that came to the wire and we didn’t get the job done. Seven wins is okay because last year we were fighting for a bowl. This year, we were already set to play in a bowl game. But we should be in Memphis.”

Al Jones/The Sun Herald (MCT)