Posted: Friday December 31, 1999 11:37 PM
MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Ticker) -- No. 14 Southern Mississippi's defense made its presence felt early and late.
The Golden Eagles had a pair of touchdown returns in the first quarter and pitched a shutout in the second half of a 23-17 victory over Colorado State in the Liberty Bowl.
"I've had the question asked to me a million times, 'Is this the best defense ever in Southern Miss history?'" coach Jeff Bower said. "I guess since I came here in 1972 I've seen a lot of football teams but I told the guys I wouldn't answer that until after the last game. So I'm officially declaring this the best defense ever in Southern Miss history."
Southern Miss (9-3) managed just Brant Hanna's 25-yard field goal after halftime but it was enough to double its lead and keep Colorado State (8-4) from targeting the end zone, which it never saw.
On the Rams' penultimate possession, defensive lineman Adalius Thomas knocked down a 4th-and-2 pass by Matt Newton from the USM 32 with 5:32 to play.
"We haven't played teams that could bat down passes like them," Colorado State wide receiver Dallas Davis said. "It seemed like every time I turned around for the ball, it was knocked down."
Colorado State forced a punt and again drove into USM territory before defensive back Leo Barnes broke up a fourth-down pass at the 18 with 1:15 remaining. Southern Miss ran out the clock.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Bower said. "They came up with big plays this afternoon, and they all played extremely well in the second half."
Chad Williams returned a fumble for a touchdown and Brandon Francis fell on a blocked punt in the end zone for the Golden Eagles, who played in a bowl for the third consecutive season, winning here twice around a loss in the Humanitarian Bowl. The Conference USA champions closed the season with four straight wins.
Newton threw for 228 yards and a touchdown for the Rams, who had not been to the postseason since appearing in Holiday Bowls in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Colorado State held a 268-187 edge in total yards and a 10-minute margin in possession time but could not take advantage.
"We knew they were a good team, especially defensively," said Rams coach Sonny Lubick, whose team had a five-game winning streak snapped. "A couple of plays here and there, a couple of penalties, it made a difference in the game."
Colorado State's first possession ended in disaster. On third down from his 18, Newton, who completed just 20-of-26 passes, was sacked and fumbled. Williams picked it up at the 5 and rumbled in just 1:49 into the contest.
Newton was picked off by Roy Magee on his next possession but the Rams got it back when Jason Gallimore blocked Jamie Purser's punt and recovered it at the USM 27. Five plays later, C.W.
Hurst kicked a 35-yard field goal.
Southern Miss went nowhere and Purser's punt was downed at the 5. The defense held and John Floyd crashed through the line to block Deone Horinek's punt in the end zone. Francis fell on it for a 13-3 lead with 4:35 left in the opening period.
Hurst missed a 31-yard field goal early in the second quarter before the Rams finally got in the end zone. Frank Rice's TD run of two yards capped a 50-yard drive midway through the period and cut the deficit to 13-10.
USM's Jeff Kelly was picked off by Rhett Nelson, who returned it 41 yards to the 35. Kelly had a rough game, going 13-of-30 for just 130 yards.
"They were well prepared on defense," Kelly said. "We just didn't execute at times, we were inconsistent at times."
Three plays later, the Rams were on top as Newton found Cory Woolstenhulme with a 38-yard TD pass for a 17-13 lead with 3:32 left in the half.
The Golden Eagles answered with their only sustained drive of the game. Kelly threw 19 yards to Sherrod Gideon and 13 yards to Todd Pinkston before scrambling 22 yards to the 12. With 26 seconds left and 4th-and-1 from the 3, Derrick Nix banged in for the TD that gave Southern Miss the lead for good.
Nix carried 17 times for 55 yards. Pinkston caught four passes for 49 yards and Gideon three for 39 for the Golden Eagles, who managed just 11 first downs and committed 11 penalties for 59 yards.
Kevin McDougal was limited to 59 yards on 25 carries for the Rams, who had eight penalties for 71 yards. Pete Rebstock caught seven passes for 69 yards and Davis had six for 82.
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