Justin McMillan won two Texas state championships playing for a high school only about 35 miles away from where he played his last game for Tulane. Both of his parents served in the Army.
The Armed Forces Bowl provided a storybook finish for his college career.
McMillan, who started for the Green Wave for two seasons after transferring from LSU, threw three touchdown passes in the third quarter as Tulane rallied for a 30-13 win while renewing a rivalry against Southern Mississippi on Saturday.
“It is a home game. I live right down the road,” said McMillan, who went to Cedar Hill High School. “It feels good to, one, play a game down here, two, to have two parents in the military. It’s literally a Cinderella story for me.”
Tulane (7-6) finished consecutive seasons with bowl wins for the first time in school history.
The Golden Eagles (7-6) took a 13-0 lead after Jack Abraham threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score on their first drives, but the quarterback took a hard shot on his last snap before halftime and didn’t play again. They also lost top running back De’Michael Harris to a hamstring injury in the first half.
Tulane tied the game at 13-all on its first possession after halftime, when McMillan threw a 52-yard TD pass to Jalen McCleskey.
“Obviously we didn’t play great in the first half. … Five weeks off, I think that hurt us a little bit,” coach Willie Fritz said. “It takes a while to get the rhythm back.”
The Green Wave certainly did after halftime, when Southern Miss struggled without two of its offensive threats.
“We really just had a disastrous third quarter any way you want to cut it,” Golden Eagles coach Jay Hopson said. “Tulane made plays offensively, they had some explosives, we had some mental errors. I think explosive plays kill you in football. I thought we played hard and I believe we competed to the very end. … Injuries are always a part of the game and it’s just next man up.”
McMillan had a high-stepping 18-yard run to set up Merek Glover’s third field goal, a tiebreaking 36-yarder, before TD passes to Jacob Robertson (7 yards) and a wide-open Amare Jones (20 yards) on the next two drives.
After only 22 yards passing at halftime, McMillan was 9-of-10 for 193 yards in the second half.
But Abraham took a shot on a blitz by linebacker Lawrence Graham and fell hard on his shoulder on a third-down incompletion in the final minute of the first half. Abraham never returned, though he was still in uniform on the sideline after halftime.
“I knew I struck him, but I didn’t think he was going to be out,” Graham said. “I’m not ever intentionally trying to hurt anybody, and I hope he’s all right. … We had perfect play called up, and just free, and full-steam ahead.”
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles had 164 total yards after their first two drives, and only 35 more the rest of the first half. Thad Whatley, the sophomore quarterback who took over for Abraham, had attempted only seven passes while appearing in two games during the regular season. He was 9-of-22 passing for 134 yards with two interceptions. Watkins finished with eight catches for 121 yards.
Tulane: A positive finish for the Green Wave after losing their last three games in the regular season. They had gotten off to a 5-1 start before back-to-back road losses in late October to Memphis and Navy.
BATTLE FOR THE BELL
The Green Wave not only got the Armed Forces Bowl trophy, they won the “Battle for the Bell” and took home that trophy. While their campuses are only about 115 miles apart, both teams traveled more than 500 miles for their first meeting since 2010. They were charter members in Conference USA, but Tulane left that league after the 2013 season for the American Athletic Conference. Southern Miss had possessed the bell since 2003, after the first of six consecutive wins in the series.
Southern Miss will open Hopson’s fifth season, after four consecutive winning seasons, on Sept. 5 at home against South Alabama. Abraham, the former junior college transfer who has started 22 games the past two seasons, is expected back and could have his top three receivers: Watkins, Jaylond Adams and Tim Jones.
Tulane will have a new quarterback, possibly former Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard. The Green Wave this season went to consecutive bowls for the first time since 1979-80, but they have never gone to bowl games in three consecutive seasons. They start the season with a Thursday night game at home on Sept. 3 against Southeastern Louisiana.