BOISE, Idaho -- John Welsh's great arm and Southern Mississippi's bad hands gave Idaho its biggest football victory ever.
Welsh, a freshman quarterback, threw for four touchdowns and Idaho forced six turnovers in beating the Golden Eagles 42-35 in the Humanitarian Bowl on Wednesday.
At the beginning of the season, more than one publication ranked Idaho dead last in all of Division I football. Three months later, the Vandals (9-3) capped a remarkable season by coming back to win the nation's coldest bowl.
"These guys were rated 112th in the nation about 90 days ago, but it's not where you start, it's where you finish," Idaho coach Chris Tormey said. "This is the high point in Idaho football history, I think."
The Eagles were favored by 16« points, but six fumbles, a number of dropped passes and an indifferent defensive performance doomed them.
"We are incredibly disappointed," Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower said. "We had too many dropped passes and turned the ball over too many times. It wasn't an acceptable performance."
Welsh was 24-of-41 for 291 yards, but the outcome wasn't secure until linebacker Ryan Skinner, who had 20 tackles, recovered Derrick Nix's fumble at midfield with 2:30 to play. Nix rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns, but also fumbled twice in critical situations.
"It's obvious we killed ourselves," Southern Miss quarterback Lee Roberts said. "We didn't execute the whole game, and they played big when it counted."
After Southern Miss (7-5) rallied from a 14-point deficit to tie it at 35-35, Welsh drove Idaho 65 yards for the winning touchdown. His 21-yard scramble helped set up his 28-yard TD pass to Ryan Prestimonico with 4:36 left.
"I don't think anybody expected us to play as well as we did," Welsh said. "Just being here wasn't good enough. We wanted the trophy."
Idaho's inventive offense bothered the Golden Eagles all day, using no-huddle schemes and five wideouts in short-yardage situations. Tormey also surprised Southern Miss by playing a zone pass defense, something the Vandals hadn't done all season.
"Chris is a clever coach, and his team plays well together," Bower said. "They had a great game plan, just great."
Idaho led 35-21 with 10 minutes to play, but Roberts, who threw for 342 yards, combined for the second time on a scoring pass with Sherrod Gideon to cut the deficit to seven points. Gideon caught 12 passes on the day for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
Idaho punter Mike O'Neal then shanked a kick and the Golden Eagles drove 45 yards for the tying touchdown, which came on a 15-yard run by Nix with 6:37 left.
"This is an unbelievable win for our program, and it's especially sweet because we were the tougher team down the stretch," Tormey said.
Jerome Thomas scored the Vandals' first touchdown on a 98-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, the first of its kind in Humanitarian Bowl history. But the Golden Eagles made long touchdown drives on three of their first four possessions and looked ready to take control of the game.
"We had the momentum, but somehow it got away, and we never got it back," Bower said.
Southern Miss led 21-7 after Nix's second touchdown run of the game early in the second quarter, but Welsh threw three TD passes in the final 5« minutes of the half as Idaho went ahead. Welsh's 2-yarder to Michael Moody made it 28-21 as time expired.
The second edition of the Humanitarian Bowl attracted 19,664, well below the 30,000 that Boise State routinely draws but over 3,500 more than attended last year's inaugural game. Organizers were worried a storm would hit Boise on game day, but the temperature on a sunny afternoon was in the 40s.