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Southern Miss beats La. Tech, clinches C-USA West

RUSTON, La. (AP) – Ito Smith scored three rushing touchdowns over a 45-second span early in the fourth quarter to lead visiting Southern Miss to a 58-24 victory over Louisiana Tech here Saturday afternoon at Joe Aillet Stadium to capture the Conference USA West Division crown.

The win for Southern Miss (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) gave them its third divisional championship for the Golden Eagles since the league went to this format in 2005. The program will go after its sixth league championship next Saturday when they travel to Bowling Green, Ky., to face WKU in an 11 a.m., contest. The game will be televised on ESPN 2.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas

Nick Mullens

Nick Mullens

Smith rushed for a career-high 169 yards on 22 carries and scored three times, all on the first play of a drive following a Louisiana Tech turnover – the Bulldogs committed seven in the game – to break open a tight game.

The first TD came with 14:41 left in the contest from 57 yards, and he added a 17-yard rushing touchdown 21 seconds later, before tallying an 11-yard score 26 seconds after that. Devonta Foster then completed the 27-point final quarter with a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:26 remaining.

Mike Thomas collected a career-best 162 yards on seven catches, including a one-handed grab on a score in the back corner of the end zone in the second quarter as Southern Miss built a 24-10 lead at halftime. Thomas has now caught a touchdown pass in each of the last eight games. Mullens finished the day throwing for 386 yards on 24-of-37 passing with three touchdowns and one interception. It was the 13th game in Mullens’ career that he has thrown for at least 300 yards in a contest.

The Golden Eagles opened the game’s scoring on their second drive as Mullens orchestrated a 92-yard drive, recording four pass plays of at least 20 yards, which culminated in 22-yard scoring strike to Jalen Richard to give Southern Miss the early 7-0 lead. It was the third scoring drive for the Golden Eagles that went at least 90 yards this season.

The Bulldogs scored on their ensuing drive as quarterback Jeff Driskell pushed the home squad down the field and had LA Tech at 1st-and-10 at the Southern Miss 25. After an incompletion, Dylan Bradley sacked Driskell. The Bulldogs were then hit with a delay of game and had to settle for a 47-yard field goal from Jonathan Barnes.

The game remained 7-3 until Southern Miss blew up open the game with 21 points in the second quarter.

The Golden Eagles extended their lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Richard with 12:06 to go in the second quarter, giving him 13 for the season, which if fourth-best on the school charts for a single season.