BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Ben Mauk shrugged off mistakes and Southern Miss defenders alike, and helped No. 20 Cincinnati make one more entry into an impressive season.
Outgoing Golden Eagles coach Jeff Bower, meanwhile, couldn't put another win on his ledger.
The hard-to-tackle Mauk passed for 334 yards and four touchdowns, and DeAngelo Smith intercepted three passes Saturday, leading the Bearcats to a 31-21 victory over Southern Miss in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
The victory gave Cincinnati (10-3) its second 10-win season and first since 1951, while virtually assuring a spot in the final rankings for the first time.
"It's kind of finishing off what's been a really important season in UC football," first-year coach Brian Kelly said. "It started out with waking up a program that maybe had nodded off a little bit. It took us six wins this year to get ranked in the top 25. I don't know that it will take six next year."
Mauk, the game's most valuable player, completed 30 of 52 passes and overcame three interceptions to become only the third Bearcats player to have a 3,000-yard passing season. It was a nice finish for the former Wake Forest starter, but a difficult one for Southern Miss (7-6) and Bower.
It was the final game for Bower after 17 seasons at his alma mater, a stay that ranks behind only that of Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Frank Beamer among current coaches. Bower was forced to resign after a disappointing regular season, leading to the hiring of Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora.
Bower walked off the field, his arm draped around daughter Stephanie, and admitted he got "a little emotional" in the locker room afterward.
"We played extremely hard, but obviously we didn't make enough plays to win the game," he said. "But it certainly wasn't from lack of effort. They played hard, and that makes me proud. That's what a coach wants to see more than anything else. Our guys played their tails off, and I'm proud of them for it."
Kelly had praise for Bower when they met on the field.
"You could see how much those kids loved him and how they played and rallied around him," he said. "They played with a lot of energy and passion that you normally don't see in a bowl game. You could feel that on the sidelines. I wanted him to know that."