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December 25, 2011HONOLULU - - Senior quarterback Austin Davis made the plays when it counted to send Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora out a winner.
Davis threw two touchdowns, including a 4-yarder late in the game, and No. 21 Southern Miss earned a school-record 12th victory by holding off Nevada 24-17 in the Hawaii Bowl on Saturday night.
"It wasn't his best game, but he did enough to help us win this football game," said Fedora, who is leaving after four seasons to take over at North Carolina.
Davis overcame a shaky game for the Conference USA-champion Golden Eagles (12-2), and the defense in the second half managed to shut down Nevada's potent pistol attack led by Lampford Mark.
"I thought we struggled the entire game offensively. We made a few big plays at the end, but really the defense, these guys were special and they've done that all year," Davis said. "We made a play or two on offense when we needed to."
Davis was off most of the night but made it count on the game-winning drive. On third-and-goal, he scrambled right and found Kelvin Bolden for the 4-yard score, capping a seven-play, 68-yard drive. He had just 59 yard passing at halftime and finished 18 of 41 for 165 yards.
On the winning drive, Davis was 3 of 4 for 66 yards, including a 43-yard completion to Dominique Sullivan down the right sideline and a 19-yarder to a crossing William Spight. Sullivan had five catches for 75 yards.
With Davis held in check, the Golden Eagles relied on their defense, stopping Mark on fourth-and-1 at midfield with 3:56 left. Mark had 183 yards rushing for the Wolf Pack (7-6) but was held to just 21 yards in the second half.
"Our offense in the second half-our offensive front just didn't get it done at all and I was really disappointed in that aspect of it. We got stopped on two fourth-and-1s," Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said.
Nevada was without its top receiver, Rishard Matthews, who has 91 receptions for 1,364 yards and eight TDs.
The game featured a Hawaii Bowl-record 17 punt, and the 41 combined points was the fewest in bowl history.
Cody Fajardo was 8 of 19 for 60 yards for Nevada. He also was held to just 14 yards rushing on nine carries before being replaced by Tyler Lantrip.
The Golden Eagles got another big win after capturing their fifth C-USA title by upsetting previously unbeaten Houston 49-28 in the conference championship game. This was the first 10-win season for Southern Miss since 1988.
"I couldn't be more proud of this football team and what this team has accomplished. To be conference champs and Hawaii Bowl champs is tremendous," Fedora said.
Nevada tied the game 17-all late in the third quarter on a 37-yard field goal by Allen Hardison, taking advantage of a miscue by Southern Miss. Tracey Lampley waved for a fair catch on a punt and was run into by teammate Alex Smith. The ball bounced off Lampley's left leg and Nevada's Brandon Marshall recovered on the Southern Miss 14, leading to the field goal.
Just as Nevada seemed to take control of the game, Southern Miss scored 10 points in the final 1 1/2 minutes of the first half to take a 17-14 lead into the break.
"That was big. I felt like we played so bad, but we were winning at halftime and that's a credit to how well our defense was playing and our special teams," Davis said. "Our special teams has made an unbelievable difference in our season this year. It seems like every time we needed it, they managed to come up with a game-changing play."
Mark's 45-yard run gave the Wolf Pack a 14-7 lead with about 5 minutes left in the half, and Nevada took the ball right back on the ensuing kickoff.
Jeremy Hester returned the kickoff 61 yards and appeared to be heading for a touchdown. After shedding the kicker, Hester was stripped from behind by Khalid Wooten and Thaddeus Brown returned it 16 yards to the Nevada 36.
But the team from Reno gambled and ended up turning it over on downs on its own 45 when Mark was stopped short on fourth-and-1. That led to a 48-yard field goal by Hrappman with 1:21 left in the half.
"We worked so hard, all the weeks and weeks of preparation. It doesn't feel right not winning," Mark said.
On the kickoff, Wooten fumbled and Southern Mississippi's Emmanuel Johnson recovered at the Nevada 24. Seven plays later, Davis threw a 2-yard pass to Lampley in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score. A brief scuffle broke out between some of the players after the catch, but no one was ejected.
With both teams struggling to get going, special teams got the Golden Eagles on the scoreboard from a blocked punt by Tim Green early in the second quarter.
Green burst through the middle and leaped in the air, getting his hand on the ball as he flipped over a blocker. Tray Becton-Martin then dropped on the ball in the end zone, giving the Golden Eagles a 7-0 lead. Becton-Martin is the 25th different player to score for the Golden Eagles this year, which leads the nation.
Nevada answered with a 5-yard touchdown run by Mark, who had a 25-yard scamper to begin the 81-yard drive. Mark had 41 yards rushing on the drive, giving him 112 yards and his sixth-straight game with 100 or more.
Both teams blew good scoring opportunities in the first quarter.
Mark burst up the middle for 43 yards and was chased down from behind by Presley, getting Nevada inside the red zone. But Fajardo's pass on third down was tipped and intercepted in the end zone by Jacorius Cotton.