Southern Miss (9-3, 7-1 Conference USA) will travel to Bowling Green, Kentucky Saturday to play Western Kentucky (10-2, 8-0) for the conference championship.
“We’ve got to go back on the road, and we knew that would be the case,” said head coach Todd Monken. “If you want to win, you’re going to have to do it on the road. Great. We’ll be ready this week. We’ll expect (the Hilltoppers) best, and they sure as heck can expect ours.”
The Golden Eagles won the last conference championship game they played in, defeating the No. 6 ranked team in country, Houston, 49-28 in 2011. Western Kentucky has only been an FBS school since 2009 and did not join C-USA until 2013, having never participated in a C-USA championship.
Despite the Hilltoppers’ lack of a track record, they have proven to be a dominant team this season and boast one of the most feared passing attacks in the nation. Sixth-year senior quarterback Brandon Doughty ranks fifth in the nation with 4,184 passing yards and leads the nation with 42 passing touchdowns.
Doughty spreads the ball around as five receivers have over 500 receiving yards and three receivers have over 50 catches. But his favorite target is Taywan Taylor, a 6-feet, 1-inch junior, who is a great route runner. He can line up inside or outside and wins with his quickness off the line of scrimmage.
While Taylor is certainly a weapon to pay attention to with 15 touchdowns on the year, it’s Western Kentucky’s scheme and pace that will be a challenge for the Southern Miss defense. The Hilltoppers spread, pass- first attack is predicated on high percentage throws, but they are always trying to set up the big play as well.
The Golden Eagle defense is going to have to come to play in order to come away with a win, especially the pass rush. Doughty has only been sacked 14 times this season, which is a credit to how quick he gets rid of the ball.
For USM’s pass rush to be successful, defensive tackles Michael Smith and Andrew Bolton will have to be disruptive and not allow Doughty to step up in the pocket. It is a task easier said than done, but Smith and Bolton have been disruptive all season and are capable of disrupting the flow of the Hilltopper offense.
The Golden Eagles will have to play in their nickel defense for most of the game, something they are surely prepared for. When injuries depleted the linebacker corps against Louisiana Tech, defensive coordinator Dave Duggan’s hand was forced to stay in nickel almost exclusively.
The defense excelled in the nickel defense with Picasso Nelson Jr. rolling into the slot and Deshadrick Truly manning the free safety position. Truly capped off the game with a pick six, highlighting his range and athleticism. While Western Kentucky’s offense is hard to even contain, if any defense in the conference is capable of matching the Hilltoppers’ athleticism, it’s this Golden Eagle defense, which is tops in the conference.
Offensively, the matchup is favorable for Nick Mullens and company. The Hilltoppers have allowed at least 28 points six times this season and have had trouble stopping the run in particular. Luckily for USM, it has two of the best running backs in the entire country.
Jalen Richard and Ito Smith have combined for 2,048 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground this season and both backs average at least six yards per carry. It will be very important for Southern Miss to get the ground game going early in order to control the tempo, keep its defense off the field and tire the Hilltopper defense.
When the Golden Eagles have been at their best offensively, which has been every week as of late, they have gashed teams on the ground and hit big plays off of play action. If USM is able to run the ball early, look for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to dial up a few deep passes. WKU lacks size in the secondary so senior standout Mike Thomas could be in for another big day.
This game is likely going to boil down to who wins the turnover battle as both offenses have the ability to move the ball at will. In all likelihood, this game is going to be a shootout.
But Southern Miss’ defense matches up better with the WKU offense than the WKU defense in regards to the USM offense. So while WKU is favored, this is actually a good matchup for the Golden Eagles.
Monken believes his squad also has a mental edge with their aggressive nature as a coaching staff and as a team all together.
“There is nothing to hold back, there is nothing to be scared of,” Monken said. “You have to be aggressive and you have to be willing to go for it on fourth down. You have to be willing to do onside kicks and be willing to think you can get it in from the one-yard line.
“I know that is their mindset. I have watched them all year. That is our mindset, being aggressive and having confidence in your players and them having the confidence in you to go for it and they will back you as the head coach.”
Come Saturday, the Golden Eagles will be looking to win their sixth C-USA title. Kickoff is at 11 a.m.