HONOLULU — As if being 5,500 miles from Hattiesburg, Miss., 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 UNR (7-5) in the Hawaii Bowl today in their final game under coach Larry Fedora. He is leaving after four seasons to lead North Carolina.
“It’s going to be tough. There’s a piece of my heart and soul in this football team,” Fedora said. “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 en route to its fifth C-USA title by upsetting Houston 49-28 in the conference championship game behind Austin Davis’ four touchdown passes. The 10-win season is the Golden Eagles’ first 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 season.
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.
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 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, UNR is no stranger to the islands, or the Hawaii Bowl.
UNR is making its seventh straight postseason appearance and 12th overall. It will be playing in the Hawaii Bowl for the third time since 2005. The Wolf Pack defeated Central Florida 49-48 in overtime in 2005 and lost to Southern Methodist 45-10 in 2009.
“It’s great and beautiful, and we love it here, but for us, it’s a business trip,” UNR defensive tackle Brett Roy said. “We know what we’re here to do.”
Featuring a high-powered offense that ranks fifth in the nation in total yards (522.8 per game) and eighth in rushing (251.8), UNR is coming off a roller-coaster year in which 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 sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18½).
Quarterback Cody Fajardo, who didn’t start until the fifth game, runs the Wolf Pack’s potent pistol. He has passed for 1,647 yards and six scores while rushing for 680 yards and 11 TDs. UNR also has Rishard Matthews, who has caught 91 passes for 1,364 yards and eight TDs.
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.
UNR coach Chris Ault said he was particularly impressed with Southern Mississippi’s win over Houston.
“They just destroyed them. That just shows you what kind of football team they are,” he said.
NO. 22 SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI (11-2)
VS. UNR (7-5)
■ TIME/TV: 5 p.m. today; ESPN (30) ■ LINE: Southern Mississippi -8½; total 64
■ SERIES RECORD: Southern Mississippi, 2-0
■ AT STAKE: Southern Mississippi 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. 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. UNR is trying to end on a high note after losing two of its last three games, which cost the Wolf Pack a chance at the Western Athletic Conference title.
■ KEY MATCHUP: Southern Mississippi quarterback Austin Davis vs. UNR defensive tackle Brett Roy. Roy, the leader of the Wolf Pack defense with 10 sacks, will need to help contain Davis, who has passed for 3,331 yards and 28 touchdowns while rushing for 332 yards and four scores. 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: UNR: Quarterback Cody Fajardo. The WAC freshman of the year didn’t start until Week 5 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 Mississippi: Linebacker Jamie Collins thrived under first-year defensive coordinator Dan Disch, recording 94 tackles, including 19½ for loss, to go with 6½ 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 AND FIGURES: Southern Miss is making its 22nd postseason appearance and is 9-12. … This is the seventh straight bowl appearance for the Wolf Pack. UNR is 4-7 in the postseason. … This will be the third meeting between the schools. The Golden Eagles won 35-19 in Hattiesburg, Miss., 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. … The Golden Eagles are one of 12 teams to have reached the postseason 10 straight years. … UNR has 18 players on its roster who have earned degrees, including quarterback Tyler Lantrip, who has a master’s. Every senior who came to UNR 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.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS