Southern Miss wins second straight New Orleans Bowl

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) -- Southern Mississippi's win in the New Orleans Bowl was a lot like the rest of the Golden Eagles' season -- a struggle.

Shawn Nelson caught two second-half touchdowns and Cody Hull added 161 yards rushing to lead Southern Mississippi over Arkansas State 31-19 on Tuesday night in the first of the season's 28 bowl games.

Southern Miss endured plenty of turmoil long before arriving in Lafayette, where the New Orleans Bowl was moved because of Hurricane Katrina. The Golden Eagles had two games postponed in September because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, had to relocate temporarily to Memphis and played nine games in nine weeks to end the regular season.

Against Arkansas State, the Golden Eagles fumbled on their first two drives, but they finally took control in the second half.

"It's been a very, very different year and a tough year -- like tonight's game was tough," Southern Mississippi coach Jeff Bower said. "What a resilient bunch of football players. They've just been so good pushing through it and keeping a positive attitude."

Arkansas State tied the game at 17 in the third quarter on Nick Noce's 2-yard pass to Manuel Burton, but Dustin Almond answered with a 29-yard toss to Nelson to make it 24-17.

The Indians scored on a safety when Southern Miss punter Luke Johnson knocked the ball out of the back of the end zone after a bad snap. The Golden Eagles made it 31-19 on Almond's 6-yard pass to Nelson with 8:22 remaining in the game.

Arkansas State (6-6) was in its first bowl since moving back up from Division I-AA. The Indians were in I-AA from 1982-91; before that, their last postseason appearance was against Central Missouri State in the 1970 Pecan Bowl.

"There is nobody outside of our locker room that felt we could accomplish what we accomplished this year," Indians coach Steve Roberts said. "There's nobody outside of our locker room that predicted that we could be in the situation that we were in."

Southern Mississippi (7-5) made its fourth straight postseason appearance and eighth in nine years. The Golden Eagles beat North Texas 31-10 in last year's New Orleans Bowl.

Southern Miss, a double-digit favorite, appeared on its way to an easy win when Almond found Nelson for a 37-yard completion on the first play from scrimmage. But after the Golden Eagles drove to the 1-yard line, Almond fumbled a snap and the Indians recovered.

Southern Mississippi's next drive ended with another fumble, this one at the Arkansas State 48.

"I'm just disappointed we didn't take care of the ball any better that first quarter," Bower said. "I thought we had a chance to do a lot of good things."

The teams exchanged field goals in the second quarter, and Cole Mason put the Golden Eagles ahead 10-3 with a 5-yard run with 2:05 to play in the half. The Indians answered with an eight-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Noce's 4-yard run with 5.8 seconds

Southern Mississippi went ahead early in the third quarter. Kevis Coley recovered Noce's fumble at the Arkansas State 15 and returned it to the 10, setting up Hull's 1-yard scoring run.

The Indians came back again. On first-and-goal from the 2, Noce faked a quarterback draw and then backed up and threw to an open Burton in the back of the end zone.

Antonio Warren rushed for only 20 yards for Arkansas State, finishing the season with 1,066. Warren left in the first half after reinjuring the ankle he sprained earlier in the year. He returned in the third quarter but wasn't much of a factor. His fumble at the Arkansas State 25 set up Southern Mississippi's final touchdown.

"It was very hard," Warren said of being injured. "I am still shaken up right now because there was nothing more that I wanted to do than go out there and play in this game. It was unfortunate that I could not go out there and help my team win."

Noce went 10-of-19 for 213 yards with an interception. He also ran for 55 yards.

Almond went 17-of-32 for 253 yards in his final college game. He set several season school records in the game, including yards passing (2,860), completions (216), passing attempts (394) and total offense (2,763 yards).

Brett Favre set the previous record for attempts with 381 in 1989.

Hull, a sophomore, surpassed 100 yards for the first time. Nelson, a freshman, had six catches for 121 yards -- both career highs. He was named the game's most valuable player.

Arkansas State's Darren Toney had a scintillating kickoff return nullified by a holding penalty in the second quarter. Toney ran about 25 yards upfield, retreated several steps and then streaked down the sideline for what would have been a 93-yard touchdown.

Arkansas State was the first Sun Belt Conference team besides North Texas to represent the league in the New Orleans Bowl. North Texas went the last four years, winning once.

The attendance was 18,338. Last year's game drew 27,253 in the Superdome.