ST. PETERSBURG — It wasn't as easy as in past years, but the Big East is still undefeated at Tropicana Field.
Louisville, down 14 points early, rallied to tie Southern Miss then took the lead in the fourth quarter, its defense buckling down for a 31-28 win before an announced crowd of 20,017 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
"Before the game, I said, 'Just give me 60 minutes, guys. That's all we need,' " first-year Cardinals coach Charlie Strong said. " 'Tomorrow, you have all day to rest. You can really have a great Christmas. Those presents are fun to open when you win a game.' "
Louisville (7-6) took its first lead — on the first lead change in the bowl's three-year history — on a 36-yard field goal by Chris Philpott with 6:30 left. The Cardinals had tied the score on the second play of the fourth quarter, when Jeremy Wright took a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
"It was so exciting to see a football team that has come a long way, a team that truly believes in one another," said Strong, a former Florida defensive coordinator.
After the field goal, Southern Miss (8-5) went three-and-out, not getting any closer than its 26.
Louisville then nearly ran out the clock, as the Golden Eagles had burned two timeouts in the third quarter. The Cardinals' final punt was downed at the 2 with seven seconds left. A final pass made it out to only the Southern Miss 30.
Wright was honored as the Louisville game MVP, while Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis earned his team's honor after throwing two touchdowns and catching a third. His last touchdown, an 8-yard pass to Zeke Walters on the first play of the fourth quarter, had given the Golden Eagles a 28-21 lead, after converting two fourth downs and a third-and-12 play, but the lead lasted only 15 seconds — thanks to Wright.
"When a team goes up on you and you get an opportunity to return the ball, you want to seize the momentum, and that's exactly what they did," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "They grabbed the momentum right back. You've got to give them credit. That was huge."
Southern Miss jumped out to a 14-0 lead, with two touchdowns in their first five offensive plays. Davis connected with Quentin Pierce for a 32-yard touchdown, and after the second of three Louisville three-and-outs to open the game, Southern Miss' Desmond Johnson broke loose for a 62-yard touchdown.
Louisville's first chance to get back in the game was botched. After a low snap, Southern Miss punter Peter Boehme was tackled at the Golden Eagles 14. But two plays later, Louisville receiver Doug Beaumont fumbled inside the 5, and Southern Miss recovered.
Louisville got its first touchdown on a pass from Justin Burke to Cameron Graham, but Southern Miss answered with a 17-yard trick play, with Pierce throwing to Davis for a touchdown for a 21-7 lead.
The Cardinals got two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the half to tie the score, first on a 10-yard pass from Burke to tight end Josh Chichester.
After cornerback Johnny Patrick forced a fumble from Southern Miss receiver Johdrick Morris, Louisville recovered at the Southern Miss 27 with 3:16 left in the half. Bilal Powell's 6-yard touchdown with 1:18 left tied the score at 21.
The announced attendance is the lowest in the three-year history of the bowl game, with Southern Miss using only about 3,000 of its allotted 10,000 tickets.
Louisville had a strong showing, with red shirts all over one end of the seats.
The Big East had won the first two editions of the bowl game, with USF beating Memphis 41-14 in 2008 and Rutgers pulling away from Central Florida for a 45-24 win last year.