Countdown to kickoff: Southern Miss

East Carolina returns home to face Southern Miss for the last time as C-USA opponents Saturday. Here is our game preview.

As lop-sided as Saturday's game between the East Carolina football team and Southern Miss may seem, it marks the schools' final clash as members of Conference USA.

Indeed, next season will end a 30-year run of the Pirates and Golden Eagles facing off annually when ECU joins the American Athletic Conference. There are no future meetings scheduled.

Despite Southern Miss (0-5, 0-1 C-USA) owning a substantial advantage in the all-time series (27-11), ECU (4-2, 2-1 C-USA) has won three of the last four meetings and is currently a 20-plus point favorite in most Las Vegas betting lines.

This is due in large part to the Golden Eagles bringing the nation's longest losing streak (17) into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The program's last win was in the 2011 Hawaii Bowl following its upset of No. 7 ranked Houston in the C-USA Championship.

Two years and a pair of head coaching changes later, Southern Miss is still desperately trying to stop the bleeding.

The Golden Eagles have yet to score a rushing touchdown this season and the offense altogether averages just 12.2 points per game. Senior quarterback Allan Bridgford has thrown each of the team's six touchdowns through the air, but has proven to be susceptible to making mistakes. He has tossed 11 interceptions.

Meanwhile, it does not get much better defensively. Through five games, the unit has allowed an average of 37.2 points and over 200 yards on the ground.

Although, every statistic points towards an ECU rout on Saturday, Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill has been conditioned to never overlook Southern Miss.

"They're a program that, since I've been a player and a coach, is always a tough football game," McNeill told reporters. "I know they've had a tough season thus far, but you also know how they've built that program. Their community believes in their program like this community does here."

The fashion in which ECU lost in New Orleans last weekend should eliminate any thoughts of the Pirates looking past Southern Miss on Saturday. Quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy had record-breaking offensive performances, but never once connected in the end-zone. ECU scored just two touchdowns on seven trips inside the Tulane 20 yard line, which turned out to be the deciding factor in the game.

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley gave the Green Wave front line credit for holding them out of the end-zone, but attributed its struggle to a lack of execution and focus.

"We were a little more concerned with what Tulane was doing defensively than just executing our stuff," he said. "I need to do a better job with that because we're a lot better when we focus on us."

"I thought the negative yardage plays we took down there really set us back and put us in some long yardage situations. That kind of got our back against the wall a little bit."

----- Keys to the game: -----

1. Get started early: Last weekend's loss in New Orleans marked the first time the Pirates did not score a touchdown on the game's opening drive. Instead, they got a field goal. Given the circumstances – the game is at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and Southern Miss brings in a nation-worst 17-game losing streak – ECU could diminish the visitors' will to win early on by jumping on them early.

2. Make Southern Miss one-dimensional: Looking at the numbers, this should not be too difficult for the Pirates. ECU has the third best rush defense in America, while Southern Miss ranks 120 (out of 123) in rushing. If ECU takes away the running game, Bridgford has not proven he can win the game through the air. Instead, he will likely make mistakes.

3. Do not turn the ball over: If ECU should win comfortably just as long as it plays a clean game. Often times, teams open the door for inferior competition by not taking care of the ball.

Prediction: East Carolina- 33, Southern Miss- 6

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