2001 was something of a down year for Southern Miss, but nine starters return on offense. "They've got a good amount of experience coming back," Torbush acknowledged. "It's going to be a game that we're going to have to hit on all cylinders. I think it will take our best game so far this year."
The Golden Eagles are a perfect 3-0 this season, including a qualilty win over the defending Big 10 champion. "They do not panic whatsoever," Torbush said. "They're a lot like North Texas in that respect. When things aren't going well, which at one time they weren't versus Illinois, they just stay within their gameplan. They believe eventually that some good things are going to happen.
"It's not a negative toward North Texas, but we're dealing with a different football team. This is a team that will come in very confident."
Except for three years, Southern Miss has been a fixture on the Tide's schedule since 1980. "They won't be intimidated by any means," Torbush pointed out. "They've played at Alabama before. They've always been a thorn in our side. They've given Alabama fits over the years, and they will continue to do so. They've got plenty of athletes from the state of Alabama on their football team, and that's going to get those guys excited.
"They'll come in thinking they can win, and they can. If we don't play the best game we've played this year, then we've got a hard row to hoe."
Claiming a motto of "we'll play anyone, anywhere," Southern Miss faces Alabama before starting the meat of their conference schedule. "They've already beaten the Big 10 champion," Torbush said. "They beat a very fine Memphis football team last week, which I think will be a solid team by the end of the season. They beat an athletic Jackson State team. Jackson State was pretty close halfway through the second quarter. That game just got out of hand."
Averaging 231 yards per game rushing and 226 via the air, the Golden Eagle offense is balanced. "Starting a new quarterback, you might be a little surprised by the balance of their offense," Torbush explained. "But they're doing what they'd like to be. I know Jeff Bowers (the Southern Miss head coach) well, and he wants to be balanced. Last year they couldn't be, because until late in the season they didn't feel comfortable with their running game."
Southern Miss will once again rely on a strong rushing game to set up their passing attack. "They're getting done what they want, and that's kind of three-pronged," Torbush said. "They've got an outstanding offensive line. Two or three of those guys will get a shot at pro football, because they've got the size and athletic ability to do that. That sets up the running game, where they've got two outstanding running backs."
As a base formation, the Golden Eagles will trot out three wide receivers, and a tight end--but no fullback. Torbush commented on their personnel. "They've got all their wide receivers back. And you can watch their quarterback--he's gotten better every week. He's got a very strong arm. He's a heady guy. By the time he's a senior he'll be every bit as good as the ones they've (had in the past).
"They're an explosive offensive team. They don't get rattled. They get stronger as the game goes along. We're going to have to play from start to finish."
Quarterback Micky D'Angelo should develop into a quality player, and in LeRoy Handy and Marvin Young, the Golden Eagles have two fine wideouts. But tailback Derrick Nix is easily the strength of their offense.
Torbush talked about his talents. "No. 1 he's an excellent receiver coming out of the backfield, which gives you problems. He's a guy that for four or five plays he'll seem like he (gets tackled) fairly easily, and then all of a sudden he'll hit the linebacker up under the chin and gains five more yards. You're talking about a guy that probably weighs 225 or 230, and the one right behind him is not much smaller."
A redshirt senior, it seems like Nix has been carrying the football for USM forever. "He's a very smart runner," Torbush said. "You can tell he's got a lot of experience.
"Mainly he's a big, physical running back inside the tackles, but once he gets past the line of scrimmage he's got breakaway speed. He's shown that against some fast defensive backs. I ran the tapes back a bunch, and the defensive backs didn't gain one inch on him. That tells you he's got good speed."
Based on the 9/14/02 NCAA reports, Southern Miss is ranked 18th in the nation rushing the football, averaging 231 yards per game. On the other hand, Alabama's rushing defense is rated 10th, allowing only 70 yards per contest.
So something will have to give.
"Right now it's their strength against our strength," Torbush said. "We've been able to stop the run fairly well, and they've been able to run the ball really well."
With a senior tailback and a first-year quarterback, the Golden Eagles want to set up the pass with the run. "We're going to have to stop the run and force them to throw when they don't want to," Torbush explained. "If they get the running game going, they've got a great play-action and bootleg (passing) game. We've got to create some thirds and longs. If we let them get thirds and short, then we've got some problems."
All things considered, Torbush expects quite a match-up.
"Our earlier success against the run isn't going to affect Coach Bowers one bit. They're going to come in here and say ‘Here we are. Tackle us if you can.' That's their mentality."