USM 38 – Rice 24
MOBILE – Frank Gore, Jr. showed up and showed out Saturday night.
The sophomore running back from the University of Southern Mississippi smashed the NCAA bowl game, LendingTree Bowl and school single-game rushing record with 329 yards leading the Golden Eagles to a 38-24 come-from-behind win over Rice University at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
“I give credit to my o-line,” Gore said. “They made the blocks and opened up the holes for me. I just kept playing. I wasn’t really worried about the stats. I was focused on winning the game and winning the trophy.”
Gore averaged 15.7 yards on 21 rushing attempts as the Golden Eagles piled up 361 rushing yards. Gore etched his name in the record book with a 56-yard run in the fourth quarter that also sealed the win for USM.
On the previous drive, Gore had fumbled at the Rice 31-yard line giving the Owls a chance at a game-tying score. The USM defense forced a three-and-out and Gore ran into history.
The 329 yards are the most in any bowl game in NCAA history, breaking the previous record of 318 yards set by Appalachian State running back Camerun Peoples against North Texas at the inaugural Myrtle Beach Bowl in 2020.
He also broke the LendingTree Bowl single-game rushing record of 275 yards held by Toledo’s Kareem Hunt against Arkansas State in 2014.
Gore is the second player in Southern Miss history to rush for 300 yards in a game. He topped the previous record of 304 yards held by Sam DeJarnette against Florida State in 1982.
For his efforts, Gore was named the 2022 LendingTree Bowl Most Valuable Player.
After falling behind 24-17 in the third quarter, Southern Miss scored the game’s final 21 points for the comeback win.
“I thought we came out and played a dominant first half, USM head coach Will Hall said. “Then the third quarter they drove and scored on the opening drive then we had a bad turnover and they scored in one play, and boom it’s tied. Our kids are used to it. We play close games, we didn’t bat and eye, we kept battling and threw the super back in there and frank made a big play like he always does.”
Gore started the comeback with a 19-yard TD game-tying touchdown pass to Tiaquelin Mims with 3:52 left in the third quarter to tie the game at 24-24. It was Gore’s third TD pass of the season and seventh of his career
Gore finished with 348 total yards, which was 77 less yards than Rice (425) had in the game. Gore also had three total TDs, which equaled the total number of TDs scored by the Owls.
On its next possession, USM marched 98 yards in five plays to take a 31-24 lead. Gore opened the drive with a 59-yard run to the Rice 39-yard line. Quarterback Trey Lowe finished the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jason Brownlee to put the Golden Eagles back in front.
Brownlee finished with three catches for 72 yards and one TD to earn offensive MVP honors.
Rice trailed 17-3 at halftime but scored on its first three possessions of the third quarter to take its first lead at 24-17.
The Owls took the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards in seven plays, capped by AJ Padgett’ 26-ayrd pass to Isaiah Esdale to pull to within 17-10.
The Rice defense then forced a turnover on the next possession on a strip-sack by Izeya Floyd and subsequent recovery by Ikenna Enechukwu at the USM 32-yard line.
On the next play, Padgett fired a 32-yard TD pass to Esdale and all of the sudden the game was tied 17-17 less than five minutes into the third quarter. Esdale caught three passes for 83 yards and two TDs.
“We challenged our guys at halftime to come out and give it their best shot, play the best half of football they could play,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We came out and started doing exactly what we talked about. Offense, we have to score on the first possession. Defense, we need a turnover or a quick three-and-out and tie this thing up in two possessions, we did just that.”
The Owls forced a punt in the next possession and Padgett went back to work. Cameron Montgomery exploded for a 57-yard run to the USM 31-yard line on the first play. Three plays later, Padgett hit Bradley Rozner with an 18-yard TD pass as the Owls took a 24-17 lead.
Padgett completed nine of his first 10 passes in the third quarter and threw three TD passes.
“We took it one step further and took the lead,” Bloomgren added. “We weren’t able to get it done after that.”
The Southern Miss defense took over in the fourth quarter, led by linebacker Daylen Gill, who recorded 11 tackles and three sacks to earn defensive MVP honors. He had a sack on each of the final two possessions for the Golden Eagles, who finished with a season-high six sacks.
“The first half we came out and dominated,” Gill said. “The second half we were a little sluggish. I feel like God was on my side tonight. I wanted to put the icing on cake for senior year.”
Southern Miss scored on the game’s first possession to take a quick 7-0 lead. The Golden Eagles marched 75 yards in six plays, capped by Lowe’s 19-yard TD pass to Jakarius Caston. Caston caught four passes for 94 yards and one TD.
USM became the first team since Buffalo (2018) to score on the first possession of the game at the LendingTree Bowl.
Three possessions later, Gore set the tone for what would a memorable night, when he raced 64 yards for his first of two rushing TDs in the game, as the Golden Eagles extended the lead to 14-0.
Gore had three runs of 50 or more yards against the Owls. Overall, USM had four plays of 50 or more yards in the game.
Christian Van Sickle put Rice on the board with a 34-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-3 with 6:04 left until halftime.
Briggs Bourgeios followed with an 18-yard field goal to give USM a 17-3 halftime lead.
USM punter Mason Hunt averaged 42.5 yards on four punts, including two punts inside the 20-yard line. His performance earned him special teams MVP honors.
Southern Miss (7-6) becomes the first three-time LendingTree Bowl champion. The Golden Eagles improved to 3-0 all-time at the LendingTree Bowl, with wins in 2000 and 2007.
Rice (5-8) played in its first bowl game since 2014.