The Wolf Pack has played twice previously in the Sheraton Hawai`i Bowl, defeating UCF in 2005 and losing to SMU in 2009. Southern Miss is making its 22nd appearance in a bowl game and its second trip to Hawai’i. It defeated the host Rainbow Warriors 28–26 on October 15, 1977.
The Wolf Pack finished second in the WAC conference with a 7–5 record. The team was led by seven players who earned All-WAC honors, including WAC Freshman of the Year quarterback Cody Fajardo who operated with Nevada's effective pistol offense (523 yards per game) and All-American defensive tackle Brett Roy.
USM entered the bowl game with a 11–2 record. The Golden Eagles upset the Houston Cougars in the 2011 Conference USA Football Championship Game 49–28 to win the conference championship. The 2011 Hawai'i Bowl was Southern Mississippi's 10th straight bowl game. The game was also coach Larry Fedora's last game with the Golden Eagles, as he was hired to coach the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Golden Eagles were led by senior quarterback Austin Davis, who completed 10,727 yards during his career. Four running backs, Kendrick Hardy, Jeremy Hester, Jamal Woodyard, and Desmond Johnson, carried the loads, each had at least one 100-yard game.
In the 1st quarter, Nevada threatened to score first when the Wolf Pack drove into the red zone. However, Cody Fajardo's pass was intercepted in the end zone, ending the drive. The rest of the 1st quarter remained scoreless.
In the 2nd quarter, Southern Mississippi scored first when they blocked a punt in the end zone for a touchdown. Nevada responded with two rushing touchdowns from Lampford Mark, including one 45-yard rushing touchdown, to make the game 14-7. On the ensuing kickoff, Southern Miss's Jeremy Hester appeared to return the kickoff for a touchdown, but was stripped from behind by Nevada's Khalid Wooten and Thaddeus Brown. Nevada was unable to take advantage of the turnover, however, and turned the ball over on a 4th-and-1 play on the Wolf Pack's own 45-yard line. The Golden Eagles capitalized on their good field position to kick a field goal to cut the lead 14-10 with 1:21 left in the half. On the ensuing kickoff, Nevada's Khalid Wooten fumbled the kickoff and Southern Mississippi's Emmanuel Johnson recovered the ball at Nevada's 24. The Golden Eagles used the good field position to score a touchdown to take the lead 17-14 going into the half.
The second half was a defensive struggle for both teams. The Wolf Pack tied the game 17-17 in the 3rd quarter on a 37-yard field goal. The Golden Eagles took the lead 24-17 with 5:48 left in the game on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Austin Davis to Kelvin Bolden. On the ensuing drive, the Wolf Pack were stopped midfield on 4th-and-1 with 3:56 left in the game. The Golden Eagles were able to get a few more first downs to preserve the victory.
The 2011 Hawaii Bowl featured a record 17 punts and a record low 41 combined points. The win also gave the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles its first 12-win season.