USM hosts FAU Saturday

The Southern Miss Golden Eagles return to action Saturday as they host Florida Atlantic at The Rock. It will be the first meeting between the two teams.

FAU (3-6, 2-4) is coming off a 34-17 homecoming win against Tulane, a win in which the Owls scored 27 unanswered points and accumulated 346 yards of total offense. Owls’ quarterback Jaquez Johnson set an FAU school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season with eight. Johnson completed 10 of 21 passed for 112 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

The Golden Eagles (0-9, 0-5) are coming off a loss to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in a 36-13 contest. In his third career start, freshman quarterback Nick Mullens finished the game 25 of 51 for 298 yards. Mullens had three interceptions and one touchdown pass to Kyle Sloter in the fourth quarter.

Amid allegations of former FAU head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis using illegal drugs in the past year, Pelini and Rekstis resigned on Oct. 30, prior to the game against Tulane. Some believed the loss of the two coaches would affect the Owls’ play against the Green Wave, but as FAU’s impressive win showed, the team is just fine under the direction of interim head coach Brian Wright.

The Eagles are looking to snap a 21-game losing streak, but before they can do that, they have a long list of issues to address. One issue that seems to have improved is the offensive line’s protection.

Prior to the game against Louisiana Tech, the Eagles offensive line allowed an average of seven tackles-for-loss, three sacks and five quarterback hurries. The Bulldogs’ defense, however, recorded only six tackles-for-loss, one sack and four quarterback hurries.

“I thought we did a better job of protecting,” said head coach Todd Monken of the performance against Louisiana Tech. “Part of that was having a new center [Garrett Clark]. We had Rashod [Hill] back at left tackle. He was under duress less. Does that mean there wasn’t any of that? No, but I think that’s why you saw less of him [Mullens] moving around.”

The Southern Miss offense will face a defense that not only had five tackles-for-loss and two sacks against Tulane, but also intercepted four consecutive pass attempts in the second half.

The Eagles will need to find a way to balance their offense to have success. Southern Miss has just 671 total rushing yards this season, less than a quarter of their total offensive yards.

Last Saturday’s game in Louisiana showed little to no improvement in the running game, as the Eagles rushed for 59 yards on 21 carries. USM’s leading rusher, sophomore Jalen Richard, only has 256 yards so far in the 2013 season.

“We’ve got to be better at running the ball schematically,” Monken said. “We’ve got to find a way to not put so much pressure on (freshman quarterback Nick Mullens) to make every play.

“…And then,” Monken said in addressing another offensive woe, “if we’re going to have to play pitch and catch, we’re going to have to catch the son of a gun. We haven’t done a very good job the last few weeks of catching the football and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Southern Miss defense will have its hands full with dual-threat sophomore quarterback Jaquez Johnson. In 2013, Johnson has been responsible for 1,823 yards of total offense – 1,305 passing and 518 rushing with 14 total touchdowns.

The Golden Eagles’ pass rush has only produced eight sacks this season which is an aspect that they much improve on Saturday to slow down Johnson. If USM’s defense can get some pressure on Johnson, he’ll give the secondary a couple of chances to pick him off as he has struggled with his accuracy in the pocket.

“It all goes through (quarterback Jaquez Johnson),” Monken stressed. “They (FAU) do a nice job of putting you in a run-pass conflict and they’ve got some explosive guys around the perimeter. We’re going to have to do a great job of containing their run game and forcing him into passing situations and putting him in a drop-back passing game.”

It is a task that is easier said than done, Monken added.

The Golden Eagles play FAU at 11:30 a.m. at the Rock. Southern Miss will try to get its first home win since Nov. 26, 2011.

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