Ben Mauk shrugged off mistakes and Southern Miss defenders alike, and helped Cincinnati (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) 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."
Bower's team couldn't convert several chances to at least make the ending interesting. Mostly, though, they couldn't stop Kelly's spread offense.
Mauk, who also rushed for 41 yards and frequently broke loose from defenders to make plays, threw three touchdown passes during an 8-minute span extending into the second half.
"I don't know how strong he is, but he's a slippery little guy," Southern Miss defensive end Matthew Chatelain said.
Added Bower, "We probably should have had 10 or 12 sacks in the game. He made us miss, and then he made plays."
For Mauk, who intends to apply for another season of eligibility because of an injury-shortened junior year at Wake Forest, his scrambling helped in more than the obvious ways.
"Anytime you can make the defensive linemen run, it wears them down a little bit in the fourth quarter," he said. "I think you saw how tired they got toward the end of the game."
Bower's third-quarter gamble didn't pay off. Cincinnati stopped punter Britt Barefoot on a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from his own 29. Mauk hit Earnest Jackson for a 29-yard TD strike on the next play for a 21-7 lead. Jeremy Young answered with a 1-yard scoring run for Southern Miss before Mauk struck again with a 10-yarder to Antwuan Giddens and set up a 22-yard field goal by Jake Rogers in the final seconds of the third quarter to put the Bearcats up 31-14.
Young cut into the lead again with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Chris Johnson. But Southern Miss couldn't recover an onside kick or convert a fourth-and-1 play on its next possession.
"I really wish we could have gotten that onside kick," Bower said. "If we could have got that, we would have had great momentum. I thought we had a great chance to get that. It looked like it went right under one of our guy's legs."
Smith's third pick ended any hope of a comeback in the final minutes after Brandon Summerall's interception in the end zone gave Southern Miss a slim chance.
Damion Fletcher provided most of the offense for Southern Miss. He ran 29 times for 155 yards against a defense that came in allowing just 106 yards on the ground. He also caught seven passes for 50 yards.
Young was 18-for-32 for 122 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 55 yards. He was sacked four times and threw the three interceptions.
"It's a tough way to go out, but it's time for us to move on to bigger and better things," Young said.
Goodman caught seven passes for 95 yards and a pair of scores for Cincinnati. Connor Barwin (86 yards) and Antwuan Giddens (64) also had seven catches apiece. Leading receiver Marcus Barnett left the game in the first half with a leg injury and didn't return.