The Rivalry in Dixie will be renewed Saturday as the Golden Eagles travel to Ruston, La. to take on the 3-5 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Southern Miss currently leads the series 31-13 and has a three game winning streak against La. Tech, but has a lot has changed since then. USM currently has the longest-active losing streak in the nation at 20.
La. Tech has struggled this season compared to a year ago, but that was expected with the departures of head coach Sonny Dykes, quarterback Colby Cameron and wide receiver Quinton Patton. Dykes jumped ship to take over at the University of California; Cameron went to training camp with the Carolina Panthers, but was released before the season and Patton was a second-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers.
Skip Holtz has since taken over as head coach and has done a decent job after the program lost its two best players. The biggest weapon on the offense is now running back Kenneth Dixon.
“We have not had the efficiency in the pass game like we would have liked, and then you put on the film and watch Kenneth Dixon,” Holtz said in his weekly press conference. “It is one of the things almost every coach comes across the field and says, ‘Wow, that guy’s a horse.’ He does a great job.”
Dixon has 698 yards on 124 carries and three touchdowns so far this season and will look to take advantage of USM’s weak run defense. USM has averaged giving up 207.5 rushing yards per game which is ranked 104th in the country.
Holtz sang high praises for senior nose tackle Khiry Thornton who has 30 tackles on the season and is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss. Thornton has been one of the Golden Eagles’ most consistent performers on the defense and is one of only three players on defense to start every game.
“I watch (Khyri) Thornton and I do not know if there is a better defensive lineman in the league,” Dykes said. “I had the opportunity to visit with one of the pro scouts and he was telling me what a great player he is.”
The Golden Eagles will need Thornton and the other members of the front seven to step up this week. If they don’t, Dixon will have another field day and pad his impressive stats some more.
On the offensive side of the ball, it all starts with the passing game. True freshman quarterback Nick Mullens has shown he can throw accurately when given time, but the offensive line has struggled protecting him.
Since Mullens was named the starter, he has been sacked eight times and has been under duress almost every throw. Despite the pressure, Mullens has thrown for 533 yards and two touchdowns in his two starts.
“Do I think Nick Mullens progressed as a quarterback? Yes. Did he take steps forward? Yes, in a lot of ways but still making mistakes. I think he progressed,” head coach Todd Monken said in his Monday press conference.
Getting defensive end IK Enemkpali blocked will be the offensive line’s biggest priority Saturday. Enemkpali was a First Team All-WAC selection last season and has already posted 5.5 sacks this year to go along with 8.5 tackles for loss.
If the offensive line can give Mullens some time in the pocket and keep Enemkpali contained, USM will have a shot to put up some points this week. If they don’t, it will be a long night for the freshman and the Golden Eagle offense.
USM has a chance to pull the upset with La. Tech having a down season, but it will take a near perfect game from the offensive line and Mullens for that to happen. The Golden Eagles are quite frankly running out of time and opportunities to register their first win of the season.
With this being a rivalry game, both teams will have a little extra juice to win this ball game. It will be interesting to see how USM will react playing in a rivalry that these players have never experienced, but it could be one of their best chances to finally get a win.