College football at its finest

Noon Saturday was Christmas central in the little town of Bellefontaine. I was already geared up to take photos of Santa’s official arrival in town and the Orr Mansion open house, but I also had something else on my mind.

Beneath my fluffy winter coat was hidden one of my favorite T-shirts — a yellow one with the Southern Miss Golden Eagles logo on it. The DVR was set to record the game that began at the same hour.

No one in Bellefontaine even knew or much less cared about that game, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the university I used to cover as a reporter in Hattiesburg, Miss.

If not for Brett Favre, I don’t think anyone in much of America would have any idea where Hattiesburg and the University of Southern Mississippi are.

Despite the fact that the Golden Eagles were ranked 24th in the nation going into the game, I hadn’t had a chance to watch a single game this season because of regional-based coverage. But this game was the Conference USA championship.

What I wouldn’t know until I started watching the game was that it was much more than just a run-of-the-mill matchup between two unknown teams in a conference that is roughly equivalent to the Mid American Conference in Ohio.

As I started watching the game, I realized they were playing Houston University — a sixth-ranked, undefeated team with a nationally acclaimed quarterback.

About two weeks ago I had read a column by former Examiner sports writer Cory McCartney, who now works for Sports Illustrated’s Web site, making a case for Houston quarterback Case Keenum’s Heisman Trophy bid.

Also at stake was a perfect record that would have given Houston a bid as a non-automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl game — a bid that not only carries some serious bragging rights but what sportscasters estimated to be about $17 million dollars to be spread among the small conference’s athletic programs.

That translates to a couple million for Southern Miss.

By the time all that had started to sink in, the Eagles had already amassed a two-touchdown lead, created largely by some really tough defense against the highest scoring offense in the NCAA.

It was almost halftime and I was starting to wonder if USM coach Larry Fedora would throw the game in the second half just to collect on the purse.

But I was wrong.

Not only did Southern Miss win, but they won with style — a 49-28 victory that saw them dominate the entire game, break an NCAA record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns (8), block a punt to score a touchdown and play some pretty incredible football all around.

I do feel kind of bad about ruining a small school’s hopes for a BCS game and a deserving young athlete’s hopes of winning a Heisman, but football is football. The team that plays better, plays harder and puts it all out there walks home with the win.

But what that game did for me is to restore a bit of faith in a sport I love but was starting to become somewhat disenchanted by.

In an era when powerhouses like Ohio State are being smacked around for players exchanging autographs for tattoos, Miami flagrantly treating its players to boat ride parties with prostitutes or a father of a now-NFL player soliciting universities for hundreds of thousands of dollars, this was different.

Not only did coach Fedora tell reporters in the press conference the day before the game that he realized the $17 million dollars was on the line and that no one in his entire conference would want his team to win the game, but he truly meant it.

The Eagles, much to the dismay of Conference USA and contrary to the allure of every single dollar sign that looms over college football these days, went in and won that game.

And that truly is football at its finest.

Reuben Mees is an Examiner staff writer and avid college fotball fan. He can be reached at rmees@examiner.org.