USM can complete turnaround with title

Published 11:50 pm Friday, December 4, 2015

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP) — The scoreboard and stat sheets could get a workout when Southern Miss travels to Western Kentucky for Saturday’s Conference USA championship showdown between the league’s most explosive offenses.

The Hilltoppers (10-2, 8-0 C-USA) lead the league in scoring at 44.2 points per game, just ahead of the Golden Eagles’ 41.7 average. Southern Miss (9-3, 7-1) has the edge in yardage at nearly 535 per game, nearly 15 more than WKU (520.1).

That’s only the beginning for these mirror-image schools.

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The game also is a matchup of strong-armed quarterbacks in WKU senior Brandon Doughty and USM counterpart Nick Mullens, who have combined for 8,148 yards and 77 touchdowns.

Doughty has thrown for 4,184 yards and 42 touchdowns this season alone. Mullens, only a junior, is already second in Southern Miss history for career passing yards.

Southern Miss also has one 1,000-yard rusher, Ito Smith, and another in Jalen Richard that only needs 17 yards to reach the milestone.

Add in two of C-USA’s top defenses and it’s no wonder Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm downplays having home-field advantage — even though his team is 5-0 at Houchens-Smith Stadium this season. Host teams are 7-3 in the championship game.

Western Kentucky has not won a conference championship since 2002, when it won the Football Championship Subdivision national title. It moved up to the Bowl Subdivision in 2008 and joined Conference USA in 2014.

“I feel we’re very evenly matched,” Brohm said. “They’ve been playing outstanding on defense. They’ve blown out a lot of teams, so they know how to win.”

Well, they do now.

Southern Miss won the C-USA championship in 2011, then won a total of four games over the next three seasons. Todd Monken is their third head coach in that span, but he’s finally been the one to turn the once-proud program’s sagging fortunes around.

Southern Miss won six straight games to win the West Division title. It has outscored opponents by an average margin of 48-16 during the run that keyed a six-game turnaround in league play from last season, one short of the C-USA record.

A league-leading defense allowing 351 yards per game has helped, along with a focus to stay the course after a 3-3 start. But Southern Miss faces a Western Kentucky team with similar strengths.

USM is second in scoring defense and rushing defense. Western Kentucky has a plus-13 turnover margin. That’s 12 better than the Golden Eagles.

In this battle of evenly-matched teams, Monken knows something has got to give.

“We’re going to have to play our best this week,” Monken said. “The stats bear that out, it’s not just coach talk. … We will expect their best and they can expect ours.”

Conference USA Championship

Southern Miss at W. Kentucky

Saturday, 11 a.m.

TV: ESPN2; Radio: 105.1 FM