USM needs win over La. Tech to make a bowl

Published 9:56 pm Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Back in August, Southern Miss was a favorite to win the Conference USA championship and even contend for a New Year’s Six bowl. The season finale against Louisiana Tech seemed destined to be a division championship game or a coronation.

It certainly wasn’t supposed to come down to this.

Instead of playing for a berth in a major bowl when they face Louisiana Tech on Friday, the Golden Eagles need a win — on a short week and possibly with their third-string freshman quarterback running the offense — just to be eligible for any sort of bowl.

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Vicksburg native Jay Hopson, who has seen his first season as USM’s head coach spiral downward over the past six weeks, is hoping his team can bounce back from a 29-23 loss to North Texas and keep the season going.

“They’re fighters. This team is a bunch of fighters. They’re hurt. The coaches, players, equipment managers and trainers are all hurt. That’s the thing; those types of losses are tough,” Hopson said at a news conference earlier this week. “It’s one of those things that you have to get back up. The life and that’s football and I know this team will. I know they will get back up and ready to go. This is one of those teams that I just admire that aspect of our team. They keep digging. They’ll give it 100 percent.”

Southern Miss (5-6, 3-4 Conference USA) had a promising start to the season. It went on the road and beat Southeastern Conference member Kentucky in the season opener and then won four out of five to position itself for another run at the C-USA West Division championship.

Things started to spiral out of control with a 55-32 loss to Texas-San Antonio on Oct. 8 and have never really come back. The Golden Eagles have lost five of their last six games, and have allowed 38 points or more in four of the losses.

Record-setting senior quarterback Nick Mullens has missed the last two games and part of a third with a concussion. His backup, Parker Adamson, has also been hurt. Hopson turned to true freshman Keon Howard to run the offense, but Howard has committed nine turnovers and completed only 44 percent of his passes in two starts.

Southern Miss is throwing for 100 fewer yards per game with Howard at quarterback than with Mullens.

“Keon is a football player and he’s going to be fine. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes those young quarterbacks go through that learning stage,” Hopson said. “I remember back at Marshall, Chad Pennington his sophomore year threw six in a game. I remember another, Byron Leftwich, throwing about five or six in a game. They wound up being first-round quarterbacks. It’s going to happen. Sometimes as a freshman, you live and you learn. That’s life. He’s a football player.”

Things don’t get any easier this week for the Golden Eagles. Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) has already clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week’s C-USA championship game. Tech has won seven consecutive games, with all of its losses coming in September — including two on the road at Power 5 conference opponents Arkansas and Texas Tech.

The Bulldogs are also well-rested, having had an open date last Saturday.

“They are that team where you don’t see a lot of weaknesses. Defensively they just fly around,” Hopson said. “They’re just a few points here and there from being undefeated.”

Although Southern Miss has been beaten up physically and mentally during its six-week swoon, Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said he’s treating them more like a wounded animal than a dead team walking.

He noted that the Golden Eagles still have plenty of talent on the roster — running back Ito Smith has rushed for 1,194 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, for example, and linebacker Dylan Bradley has 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks — and aren’t an opponent to overlook. Especially when they have something to play for.

“When you look at Southern Miss this year, they have a new coach and they are going through some struggles with the injuries that they have had. You can look at just their win-loss record, but if you really break them down, I have really been impressed with what they are doing on the defensive side of the ball,” Holtz said. “I think Bradley is second in the country in tackles for loss and he is like ninth in the country for sacks. This defense is first in total defense, passing defense, third down defense, completion percentage. I think they are second in the nation in third down percentage and it is around 23 percent. Those are just stupid numbers defensively.”

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AT STAKE: Southern Miss (5-6, 3-4 Conference USA) needs a win to become bowl-eligible. Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) has won seven straight games and has already clinched the C-USA West Division championship.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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