USM battles La. Tech for Western Division crown
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles have had a historic season so far. Three Golden Eagles broke records on Saturday against Old Dominion. Nick Mullens broke the single-season record for touchdowns and yard- age while Casey Martin broke the single-season receptions re- cord. With the 56-31 win over the Monarchs, USM also improved to 8-3 on the year, the most wins since 2011.
But the Golden Eagles are not done yet.
Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech have been on a collision course all season for the Western Division crown, and on Saturday, they will decide who goes to the Conference USA Championship Game.
While USM and Louisiana Tech will battle it out for the Western Division title, there will be a clash for the Eastern Division title as well with the winner of Western Kentucky and Marshall advancing to play either USM or La. Tech.
Most experts expected the Bulldogs to run away with the West and for good reason. Returning running back Kenneth Dixon has torn through competition with 972 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
However, there is a chink in the armor for Dixon, as he was shaken up against UTEP and struggled throughout.
However, Dixon is only part of the deadly offense the Bulldogs run. Former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel has exceled after his transfer from Gainesville and has helped to lead the 20th ranked passing offense in the nation, eight spots behind USM.
Both USM and Louisiana Tech are ranked in the top 25 in the country on offense as well, with USM at eighth and La. Tech at 25. Want even further proof the two teams are offensive juggernauts?
Louisiana Tech averages 38 points a game while USM averages 40. Both teams are facing a near mirror image of each other. Identical stats, identical records (both are 8-3, 6-1) and both had scares on Saturday, Nov. 21.
Down 17-14 at halftime, USM clawed back and beat Old Do- minion, while over in El Paso, Texas, UTEP gave the Bulldogs a near heart attack, but luckily the Bulldogs pulled it out, 17-15.
With nearly identical offensive stats and records and outcomes, what will be the difference be- tween the two teams?
Southern Miss’ defense is ranked 28th in the country while Louisiana Tech’s is ranked 44th. USM has had the biggest turn- around, with a shift from being in the 110s in 2014 to the top half of defenses in 2015.
Southern Miss’ defense started off shaky, giving up 50 points to Texas State and 31 to Marshall, but since then, the defense has found its footing. Since the Marshall loss, USM has averaged allowing just 15 points per game, inflated by Old Dominion’s 31-point performance, which included a fumble returned for a touchdown.
With everyone healthy, including Devonta Foster, who has been injured most of the 2015 season, the Golden Eagles have turned in their best defensive performance since 2011.
On the flip side, La. Tech’s defense has been inconsistent so far this season, giving up 41 points to WKU, 45 to Mississippi State and 31 to UTSA. But there is some bad news.
The Bulldogs are in the top 10 in the nation in stopping the run, and if USM cannot run the ball effectively with Ito Smith and Jalen Richard, the USM offense has been shown to sputter at times.
Here’s the good news: Louisiana Tech is 98th in the country in stopping the pass, and with gunslinger Mullens back in the pocket for USM, the Golden Eagles will have no problems pitching and catching to one of the deadliest receiving corps in the conference.
Head coach Todd Monken and the offense will likely have to implement the same style of attack they used against Old Dominion—pass the ball to set up the run.
Against Old Dominion, USM tried running the ball on first and second downs to try and set up the passing game. The result was nearly a catastrophe, as Mullens and the offense struggled mightily and trailed at the half, 17-14.
With only 26 rushing yards in the first half, Monken allowed the offense to throw the ball on ear- lier downs and much more often in the second half. With Mullens hitting several tough throws, the Monarch defense had to back its coverage up.
The result was Ito Smith and Jalen Richard finishing with over 100 yards each and nearly 300 combined. If USM is to beat La. Tech and take the Western Division title, the Golden Eagles must pass first to set up the run.
If Southern Miss cannot run the ball effectively, the team will likely return to Hattiesburg empty handed.
Kickoff is at 11 a.m. on Nov. 28 in Ruston, Louisiana.