There was plenty of pre-season hype about this Southern Miss team. But, as we all know, pre-season hype is just that.. hype.
Until it is proven on the field, and especially after the past three seasons, Southern Miss fans are going to have to see to believe.
After four games, the evidence is certainly on the field.
For a team who struggled to win any game over any team at any level the past three seasons, thoughts now of a Conference Championship and a nice bowl game are not out of the question. It has truly been the turnaround everyone has been waiting on and a new winning season streak should return to Hattiesburg.
The Golden Eagles are 2-2 after a 36-28 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers that gave the home team the good ole fashioned Southern Miss scare. The days of teams counting on a win against Southern Miss are over. The days of Southern Miss contending for a Conference Championship have returned. The Golden Eagles enter Conference USA play with many reasons to be excited about the chances to get back to the top of the conference.
Staggering Offensive Numbers
Nick Mullens is gunning for the Southern Miss record books. Against Nebraska, he threw for 447 yards and two TD's. With that feat, he becomes the only Southern Miss QB to ever throw for over 400 yards twice. He has now thrown for over 200 yards in 18 of 20 career starts, and seven times he has been over 300 yards. The Junior quarterback has thrown 10 TD's on the season too. The passing game is not the only aspect of the Eagle offense that is rolling, however. With an improved offensive line, the running game is putting up some big numbers.
Jalen Richard leads the charge for the USM running attack. He has 62 carries for 344 yards and 5 TD's. Sophomore Ito Smith has 36 carries for 281 yards and 2 TD's. Justice Hayes has yet to have his break-out game, and has 19 carries for 77 yards.
More good news for the offense; Conference USA is not a conference that is known for defense. The Golden Eagles next opponent, North Texas, just gave up 62 points in a loss to Iowa. The best defense Southern Miss will see in Mississippi State is in the rear view mirror. The outlook for gaudy numbers and records set looks very favorable right now.
Bend But Don't Break Defense
Sure, the defense has given up a lot of yards, there is no disputing that. But, in today's college football world, defenses who can create turnovers and win in the red zone can win games. The Golden Eagle defense has done that so far, and there has been a lot of players who should start to return soon. Even with two of its top 4 safeties out against Nebraska, the Southern Miss defense kept the Cornhuskers out of the end zone for most of the day and forced five field goals that kept the team in the game after a rough first half offensively.
The Southern Miss defense has been improved on third down. They have allowed only 34% of their opponent's third downs to be converted. Only 9 of 20 times the opponent has been in the red zone have they scored a TD against the Golden Eagle defense. They have also recorded 8 sacks for 62 yards, and are on pace to be much improved in that category from a year ago.
Leading the way on defense have been Dylan Bradley and D'Nerius Antione. Antione was the defensive player of the game nominee. According to Southern Miss Sports Information, he led the Golden Eagles with eight tackles (three solo) at Nebraska of which one was for loss. He tallied his first career interception that was returned 30 yards deep inside Nebraska territory, which was turned into the first touchdown of the day for Southern Miss. He added a forced fumble of which he recovered in the third quarter. He leads the team in tackles this season with 25 and has two forced fumbles to his credit during the year.
On the helmets of the Golden Eagles is the word "finish." That has been a focus of Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Zac Woodfin from back in the summer to the team, and his message is paying dividends. Southern Miss has played well in the 4th quarter of every game this season, and against Nebraska on the road there was no quit in these Eagles. A furious come back fell short but the Eagles left knowing they could have won that game in Lincoln. Mullens led a 21-point fourth-quarter scoring outburst that enabled Southern Miss to have a chance to tie the contest on the game’s last possession. The second half adjustments in both the Texas State and Nebraska game have led to big second halves for the Eagles. The condititioning and strength too have been evident, as there has been no wearing down at the end of games. Credit Woodfin, and credit the depth of the Eagles this year.
A Change In Mindset
"There is no reason we can't win every game the rest of the way on our schedule. No reason at all." These were the words of WR Casey Martin at the end of the Nebraska game, and they reflect the attitude of the Golden Eagles this season. From before the season, we have been hearing of the confidence level of these Golden Eagles and it shows in the way they are competing. It goes without saying, but a 22-0 deficit to a team like Nebraska on the road would have been lights out for Southern Miss last season. This year, they have responded to adversity by battling, and have conjured up memories of some of the winning days of former Golden Eagle teams. This team will write their own story, and it is one that is going to have a say in who wins the Conference USA championship.