USM’s mental mistakes continue to plague them as they dropped another conference game to UTEP, 35-14. The Golden Eagles turned the ball over a season-high five times in the loss.
The Golden Eagles cannot seem to get out of their own way. For UTEP, it is their third straight conference win, the most since 2008.
The game was highlighted by quarterback Cole Weeks, making the start for the injured Nick Mullens. Weeks was never comfortable in the pocket and it showed, as he threw three interceptions and was hit numerous times.
It was the inability by the offensive line to protect Weeks effectively that ultimately led to the turnovers. UTEP also came in with the game plan to exploit the offensive line and continuously blitzed all night, creating havoc for the Golden Eagle offense.
Early on in the game, USM had a lot of success with the run game, but continuously fell behind and were forced to throw the ball, leading to more turnovers.
The blame does not belong squarely on the offensive line. Weeks made several bad reads, clearly not in rhythm, unlike last week when he passed for over 300 yards against Louisiana Tech. Weeks finished 19-45 for 309 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions in the loss.
Not all was bad for the Golden Eagles in their loss: the defense played their best ball game all year long. The defensive line dominated the UTEP offensive line after getting the first-quarter jitters out of the way.
Although Southern Miss gave up 35 points, the defense only allowed 14 points and might have only given up seven, had the Golden Eagles not fumbled the ball inside their own 20. UTEP capitalized and score a touchdown off the fumble.
The other 21 points were scored by the UTEP defense and special teams. A 98-yard kickoff return by Autrey Golden started it off. Golden is currently the FBS leader in kickoff returns for touchdowns. The other two touchdowns were scored by the defense.
The bright spots for the Golden Eagles included a blocked field goal attempt by Rakeem Nunez-Roches and returned by Cornell Armstrong for a touchdown. It would be the last touchdown scored by the Golden Eagles.
Nunez-Roches finished with 11 tackles and two sacks, his best game of the year. Corey Acosta missed his only field goal attempt, a 41-yarder. USM outgained UTEP in total yards, 402 to 225, and moved the ball effectively, but could not overcome the turnovers.
After the game was well in hand, the Golden Eagles would show their greatest trait yet. They would drive 70 yards and move into UTEP territory. The Golden Eagles would turn it over on downs, but showed heart and character by not laying down and giving up.
All in all, had the Golden Eagles not beaten themselves, they had a good chance to beat a very good UTEP team. But the Golden Eagles showed that they are their own worst enemies.
Southern Miss will need to rally back quickly with the undefeated Marshall Thundering Herd coming to town. Marshall, ranked 23 by the AP poll, is lead by Heisman hopeful quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Marshall will likely implement the same defensive scheme that UTEP did if USM’s offensive line continues to fail to pick up the blitz. However, USM has been the most improved team in Conference USA and the most effective at making adjustments.
They will need to continue to improve so they can pull the upset against Marshall. Nick Mullens remains questionable to return for next week. Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.