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 Louisiana State, 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 touchdown 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 touchdown passes to Jacob Robertson (seven yards) and a wide-open Amare Jones (20 yards) on the next two drives.
After only 22 yards passing at halftime, McMillan was nine for 10 for 193 yards in the second half.
Abraham, only the third Golden Eagles quarterback with a 3,000-yard passing season, threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Quez Watkins and ran three yards for another score for the 13-0 lead.
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.”