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Sometimes the best plans go down the tubes

HATTIESBURG -The stockings were hung from the chimney with carewith hopes that the Golden Eagles would be in Houston the day afterChristmas.

Officials from the galleryfurniture.com Bowl huddled in thepress box Friday night, anxiously awaiting the outcome of theSouthern Miss-TCU game. “We want the winner.”

Bowl representative Paul Gant sat next to yourstruly in the the Ace Cleveland Press Box. “We are looking forwardto showing the team, the coaches and their wives a good time inHouston. We want to make sure they enjoy themselves. You shouldtake your wife shopping at the Galleria.”

Gant and other bowl officials planned to make the officialinvitation at midfield after Friday night’s game. A large cardboardbox, containing red, galleryfurniture.com bowl caps, rested on theground in the shadow of the goal posts. We could imagine the GoldenEagles celebrating as USM head coach Jeff Bower graciously acceptedthe invite while a national television audience watched theevent.

Southern Miss would face a representative from the Big 12Conference, probably Texas A&M. Kickoff would be Thursday, Dec.28, at 12:30 p.m., in the Astrodome, on ESPN.

A bowl promotion brochure proudly proclaimed: “We have rekindleda proud Texas tradition after a highly successful inaugural year,when high-scoring Texas Tech and East Carolina battled on the Domefloor. We anticipate another crowd-pleasing event this year. Planto be among the thousand of college football fans that willconverge on Houston in late December.”

Whoa!

Stop the music. Rewind the tape.

Color the night Purple and White, plus happy Horned Frogsinstead of Black and Gold.

In a roller-coaster season, beset by injuries and bad breaks,the Golden Eagles ended their campaign in a 2-game tailspin, losingto TCU 14-12.

Bower rubbed the right side of his face as he exited the field,replaying the game in his mind and thinking about what could havebeen. A bowl game would have saved the season. Seniors likequarterback Jeff Kelly, offensive linemanJeremy Bridges linebacker Roy Magee and defensiveback Chad Williams would have another opportunityto wear USM’s uniform.

Instead, the team made a sad procession through the north end ofthe field, walking slowly past the yet-to-be-completed athleticdepartment building, making their way across the darkened campus tothe athletic dormitory.

Many USM fans took the same route to their vehicles. Manyplayers were consoled by the faithful fans. “We still love you,”said one college-age fan. Some players were stopped and asked forautographs. Others were asked to pose for pictures.

Placekicker Brent Hanna drooped his head and dutifully signed anautograph. The youngster didn’t realize how badly Hanna felt.

A few minutes earlier, Hanna’s game-winning field goal from 44yards out had fallen just short of the cross bar. It hurt.

Kelly, the mighty field general who had broken so many USMpassing records, tried to remain upbeat about the loss. He washurting, too.

The Eagles were unable to score in the second half. Kelly hadthrown three interceptions. The final pick came at TCU’s 32-yardline. Ken Hilliard juggled the football butmanaged to maintain his grasp. USM’s last-gasp chance at scoringcame with just 33 seconds left in the game.

One more pass completion and who knows.

Brookhaven native Dr. James Hutto is a hardcoreUSM fan, a devoted season ticket holder for many years. The formerBHS principal echoed the feelings of other Eagle lovers after thegame. “This one really hurts. I think it hurts as bad as whenMississippi State came down here and beat us,” 26-23 in 1989.

The loss ended USM’s dream of a fifth consecutive postseasonbowl. That brought more disappointment for the holidays.

By comparison, TCU would realize a measure of revenge in itsfirst season of Conference USA membership. It was in the GMACMobile Alabama Bowl last December that USM pulled out a thrilling,last-second 28-21 win over TCU on a touchdown pass from Kelly toKenneth Johnson. But that’s history.

Instead, USM fans must recline in their favorite chairs duringthe holiday season and watch other C-USA members perform. The C-USAmenu includes East Carolina vs. Marshall on Dec. 19, in the GMACBowl; TCU vs. probably Texas Tech in the gallery-furniture show;Cincinnati vs. Toledo in the Motor City Bowl, Dec. 29 and C-USAchampion Louisville vs. BYU on Dec. 31 in the AXA Liberty Bowl.

Dedicated Scribe Department: Talk about a roadwarrior. Craig Burroughs, a veteran writer forDon Hanson’s National Weekly Football Gazette, made a 131/2-hour drive from his home in Chicago to cover the USM-TCU game.After all, it was the only major college football game going on inthe nation. On Saturday morning, Burrows was driving to Atlanta forthe SEC Championship Game. On Sunday, he planned to be inCincinnati, to see the Jaguars play the Bengals.