Steady Progress

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Southern Mississippi, in head coach Larry Fedora's fourth season, is off to its best start since a UPI College Division national championship in 1962. But the Golden Eagle express got sidetracked Thursday night.

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No. 20 USM is 9-2 after a 34-31 upset loss at the hands of UAB, which improved to 3-8.

Postgame obviously wasn't the best of times for Golden Eagle players, who had just hours before had hope of a BCS bowl on their collective minds. Still, they were eager to talk about their head coach, who is a potential candidate for the same position at Ole Miss.

"He's very upbeat, kinda attack, attack, attack, and that simulates what we do on offense, which is uptempo," senior quarterback Austin Davis from Meridian said of Fedora. "He's very detailed and works extremely hard at what he does. I don't think there's anybody that works harder than him in recruiting, spends more time than him in the office, and tries to prepare us as best he can."

Davis, who has been one of the main reasons the Golden Eagle offense has been so productive, said he's seen Fedora grow as a coach along with his program.

"Obviously his first year was my first year," Davis said. "He's been like a player in that he's gotten better as (his time at USM) has continued. I'm sure he can tell you the areas he's gotten better as a coach."

Davis, who has started 42 games in his USM career and broken every career school passing record in Fedora's spread offense, said players develop a bond with Fedora.

"He handles the players really well. He's a player's coach," Davis said. "He has that ability to interact with his players and also he has that enthusiasm. Those are probably his strengths."

Davis' remarks are seconded by a teammate on the opposite side of the ball.

"Coach Fedora's a great coach," said senior linebacker Ronnie Thornton of Miami, Fla. "He's enthusiastic. You can be yourself around him. He lets you know when you're doing well, and he will let you know when you're doing bad. Every player needs that."

Larry Fedora

Thornton is in his fifth year with the USM program and is the team's leading tackler this season. He says Fedora is more than a coach.

"He's like a father to me, especially being so far away from home," Thornton said. "He forms bonds with his players. He's a great coach. We get to know him, and he gets to know us. We have a great relationship."

Fedora had records of 7-6, 7-6, and 8-5 prior to this season, all of them bowl campaigns.

Heading into this season, it was apparent Fedora was going to have to shore up a porous defense if his program was going to move up a level. So he hired Dan Disch off the Illinois staff to lead that side of the ball.

Prior to Disch's arrival, USM allowed 29.5 points per game in 2010 in a 4-3 base defense. Through 10 games in 2011 with the installation of a 4-2-5 scheme, that number had fallen to 20.5 points per game.

On the offensive side of the ball, Southern Miss was averaging 457 yards a game through its first 10 games, a balanced attack with 200 yards on the ground and 257 through the air.

In Thursday night's setback, Fedora went into attack mode, as Davis called it, early in the game. After scoring a touchdown following a turnover in the game's first four minutes, Fedora and staff called for an onsides kick, which was successful. The Golden Eagles recovered and scored in three plays. Less than five minutes had gone off the scoreboard clock, and USM led 14-0.

After the Blazers tied it 14-14 still in the first quarter, Fedora pulled out a trick play to go ahead. Early in the second quarter, a fake field goal resulted in a pass from holder Peter Boehme to tight end Ryan Hanks for a touchdown that gave USM a 21-14 advantage at that point. It was apparent this one could be headed for a close finish.

Down three points at 34-31 with the ball and just under three minutes to go in the game, Davis and company started at their own 26 and moved to the UAB 45 before stalling.

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