For the first time in three years, Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1) is one win away from punching its ticket to a bowl game. However, they face stiff competition from UTEP (3-4, 1-2), who has struggled this season, but still gave Southern Miss fits in 2014.
After a dominating 44-10 win over Charlotte on Oct. 24, the Golden Eagles are playing their best ball of the season and are hitting their stride.
Most would say the Golden Eagles’ success has been because of their high-soaring offense. But Southern Miss’ success is due in large part to its defense, which has emerged and become a stronger unit as the season has gone along.
While the Golden Eagles give up yardage, they employ a bend, but do not break style of defense. They especially stiffen inside the red zone and on third downs as they rank in the top 20 nationally in both categories.
USM has the home field advantage this year against the Miners, but USM head coach Todd Monken thinks his team will have to get a lead early against the Miners.
“Can you get a lead?” Monken said. “We’re athletic up front, so can you get ahead and turn the guys loose and be aggressive. But (it’s) important, and I tell the guys, ‘It’s week to week. Youcan’t carry over stats.”
While senior wide receiver Mike Thomas has been added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list and Nick Mullens sits inside the top five in the NCAA in passing, the Golden Eagles still have a lot to improve on according to Monken.
“I don’t know if we have puttogether a complete game yet,” Monken said. “Two weeks ago we turn it over and kick four field goals and now we didn’t turn it over on offense last week, but we made a silly mistake on a punt return. So, there’s a lot of things we can improve on.”
The Golden Eagles’ own worst enemy could be themselves if they allow the two-game win streak to get to their heads and become complacent. They might be able to sneak a win by UTEP this week, but if they want to compete for the C-USA Western Division crown, they must stay motivated.
As for UTEP, injuries have hindered the Miners heavily, especially running back Aaron Jones, who was going to be the Miners’ workhorse back until an ankle injury against Texas Tech cost him his season. But just last week, they got back their starting quarterback Mack Leftwich.
“Last week, they got (Mack) Leftwich back,” Monken said. “He’s accurate, confident and they’re a different team (with him). The quarterback really has a good understanding of what they want to do and he makes them go. They were more steady last week.”
Leftwich is coming off a career-high three touchdown performance in a win against FAU, 27-17 on Oct. 24. However, Southern Miss has been very effective at getting to the quarterback this year and could provide a crowded pocket for Leftwich.
Dylan Bradley leads the way for USM with six sacks, but he is not the only one getting pressure on the quarterback. Xavier Thigpen has 4.5 sacks Ja’Boree Poole has three. As a team, USM has 21 sacks on the season.
A crowded pocket for Leftwich could be huge, as the Miners’ quarterback only stands at 5-feet, 10-inches tall.
If Southern Miss can get to Leftwich early, which they have been doing to most opposing quarterbacks, look for the Miners to struggle on offense.
Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday on Halloween.