USM looks to soar high again at Liberty Bowl
By By Tony Krausz/assistant sports editor
December 28, 2003
HATTIESBURG The University of Southern Mississippi returns to the site were the Golden Eagles flew the highest in their previous 13 bowl games, as the team suits up for the AXA Liberty Bowl on Wednesday.
The Eagles (9-3) showdown with Mountain West Conference champion Utah (9-2) in the Liberty Bowl will be in the same game in which USM dominated its opponent the most in the postseason.
USM, which has recorded a 5-8 record in bowl games, decimated Pittsburgh 41-7 in the 1997 Liberty Bowl. The 34-point margin of victory surpassed the Eagles' previous largest margin of victory, a 38-18 over UTEP in the 1988 Independence Bowl, by two touchdowns.
The 1997 Liberty Bowl was the first trip for the Eagles to the Memphis-based postseason contest. USM returned to the game in 1999 to take a 23-17 win over Colorado State.
USM will be making their sixth postseason-game appearance in the last seven years. The team has posted a 3-2 record during that time.
The Eagles recent success is in stark contrast to how the program began its history in bowl games.
USM went to four postseason contests from 1953-1958, and the team lost all four games.
The Eagles fell to the College of the Pacific 26-7 in the program's first bowl appearance in the 1953 Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
USM return to the Sun Bowl the following year, and again, the Eagles came up short falling 37-14 to UTEP.
After a two year absence from bowl play, the Eagles got another shot for a postseason win against West Texas State in the 1957 Tangerine Bowl. USM lost 20-13 in a game that then Eagles coach Pie Vann called "my toughest lost ever," as his team squandered a 13-0 halftime lead.
USM returned to the Tangerine Bowl in 1958, but the Eagles couldn't hold onto a 9-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter against East Texas State.
East Texas kicker Neal Hinson connected on a 31-yard field goal with 7:47 left to play, as USM fell to 0-4 in bowl games with the 10-9 loss.
After a two decade absence from the postseason, USM returned to a bowl game in 1980 and notched its first postseason victory.
The Eagles tallied a 16-14 win over McNeese State in the 1980 Independence Bowl, with a one-yard touchdown run by Mike Woodard with 1:17 remaining in the game.
USM followed its first bowl win with a second straight postseason game taking on Missouri in the 1981 Tangerine Bowl.
But just as in the program's first two appearances in the Tangerine Bowl, the Eagles came up short.
Missouri tallied four field goals and one rushing touchdown to take a 19-17 win over USM.
Seven years after the defeat, the Eagles returned to postseason play in the 1988 Independence Bowl.
Fueled by James Henry, who scored on punt return of 65 and 45 yards, the Eagles won their second bowl game 38-18 over UTEP. Henry, who also played defensive back, won both the offensive and defensive MVP for his efforts.
In 1990, USM made its first appearance in the All American Bowl, and Bower made his head coaching debut.
Bower was hired two weeks prior to the game to direct the Eagles program, but despite a 341-yard, two-touchdown performance from quarterback Brett Favre, USM fell to North Carolina State 31-27.
Seven years later, the Eagles embarked on the program's longest sustained postseason run with a win in the 1997 Liberty Bowl.
USM went to four bowl games in four years from 1997-2000, notching a 3-1 mark in that span.
The Eagles followed the 1997 Liberty Bowl with an appearance in the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl, losing to Idaho in a 42-35 shootout.
USM set 23 individual and team bowl records in the game that saw both teams combine for 653 yards of total offense.
The Eagles returned to the Liberty Bowl in 1999 and picked up a 23-17 win over Colorado State to keep the program's record perfect in the city of Memphis.
In 2000, USM squared off against TCU in the GMAC Mobile Alabama Bowl. The contest pitted the nation's top two defenses against each other, as the Eagles picked up a 28-21 win for the school's first winning streak in bowl history.
After missing out on postseason play in 2001, the Eagles returned to the bowl picture to take on Oklahoma State in the 2002 Houston Bowl.
USM fell 33-23 in the contest, as Houston rattled off 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to erase the Eagles' 23-20 lead.