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December 24, 2011
It's Game Day
Brett Favre will always be synonymous with Southern Mississippi football.
Austin Davis, however, has moved past the legendary quarterback in numerous categories after outdueling one of the nation's best signal-callers his last time out.
Davis will lead the Conference USA champion No. 21 Golden Eagles into their 10th straight bowl game when they meet Nevada on Saturday in the Hawaii Bowl.
One of college football's most stunning upsets came when Southern Mississippi (11-2) handed then-No. 6 Houston its first loss, 49-28 on Dec. 3 in the C-USA championship. The school-record 11th victory for the Golden Eagles cost the Cougars a chance at a BCS berth as Davis threw four touchdown passes in his matchup with NCAA passing leader Case Keenum.
"No one gave us a chance really," Davis said. "On the road, (No. 6) team in the nation, undefeated. I don't know if I could write a better script. I'm glad it worked out the way it did."
Davis' 10,727 yards passing, 81 touchdown passes and 61.6 completion percentage are all better than Favre's numbers when he attended the school from 1987-90.
The Golden Eagles' signal-caller was second in the conference behind Keenum with 28 touchdown passes and 3,331 yards, but he doesn't sound thrilled about his team's upcoming trip to Honolulu.
"It's unfortunate that we didn't get to go to the Liberty Bowl," Davis said. "Obviously, being conference champs, that's the No. 1 bowl that Conference USA wants to send their champion team to."
Southern Mississippi will be playing for the final time under Larry Fedora, the coach who was hired to take over at North Carolina on Dec. 9. Fedora was adamant about coaching the Golden Eagles in Hawaii.
"We want to see this thing through," Fedora said. "We want to finish this thing. This could be the only team in 100 years of football that wins 12 games. We want to get that 12th win."
The departure of Fedora has left the program in limbo, with players expressing their disappointment about the decision.
"Southern Miss is Southern Miss - we're going to continue to win with or without (Fedora)," offensive lineman Joe Duhon said. "I understand his decision and still really respect him as a coach and mentor."
The task of slowing down Davis falls to a Nevada defense that ranked second in the Western Athletic Conference, yielding 372.0 yards per game. The Wolf Pack are also second in the WAC in passing defense (226.6) and interceptions (15).
"They're a good football team, and you've got to be sound defensively," said coach Chris Ault, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. "Most importantly, you've got to eliminate the big play. They are really a good offensive football team."
Davis will have to watch out for Nevada defensive tackle Brett Roy, who led the WAC in sacks (10.0) and tackles for losses (18.5).
"I feel like since I'm a senior and it's on a large stage against a ranked opponent, it's paramount to where we want to take our program," Roy said.
Nevada (7-5) finished in a tie with Utah State for second place in the conference to earn a seventh straight bowl bid.
The Wolf Pack expect WAC freshman of the year Cody Fajardo to be back as the starting quarterback. Fajardo suffered a sprained ankle in a 21-17 loss at Utah State on Nov. 26, opening the door for Tyler Lantrip to get the nod the next week in a 56-3 rout of Idaho.
"It feels good, you know, running around, getting it loose," Fajardo said. "The trainers did a nice job in therapy."
Fajardo had the nation's eighth-best completion percentage at 71.4 while throwing six touchdowns and running for 11 as he blossomed into a capable replacement for Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers' second-round draft pick this year.
The dual-threat ability of Fajardo has been an asset in a season in which receivers Brandon Wimberly, L.J. Washington and Lemar Durant all failed to play for different reasons.
The lack of depth at receiver has created an opportunity for Aaron Bradley, who had seven catches for 136 yards in the regular-season finale after entering that contest with 14 receptions and 136 yards receiving on the year.
"It gives us an opportunity to say now you're ready to play," Ault said. "Of course with our receivers depleted like they are, he's going to play and play a lot of football."
Nevada is making its third appearance in the Hawaii Bowl, defeating Central Florida 49-48 in overtime in 2005 and losing to SMU 45-10 in 2009.
The Golden Eagles are 2-0 against the Wolf Pack, winning 35-19 at home in 1997 and 55-28 on the road the next year.