Southern Miss is off to its best start in the Todd Monken era, which includes its first Conference USA win of the year. It was the first time the Golden Eagles had won their conference opener since 2010.
The Golden Eagles looked the best they have looked all season in their 49-14 win over North Texas. Nick Mullens torched the Mean Green secondary, built off his chemistry with Casey Martin and distributed it to receiver Mike Thomas. Thomas had seven receptions for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles had their best performance of the season. While Southern Miss’ defense has struggled early in the year, it dominated against North Texas, allowing just 14 points and carried a shutout into the fourth quarter.
But Friday night’s matchup against Marshall is another challenge in itself. The Thundering Herd have been at or near the top of the conference standings over the past few years and are once again in a great position in the conference. Monken knows his team has its hands full Friday and must perform better than they have in previous matchups with Marshall.
“In 2013, we came out and had no chance, and then last year we didn’t do it well enough,” he said. “We had every opportunity early, then in the middle of the game, we couldn’t get off the field on third down and couldn’t continue scoring with them. So that was frustrating, but we are significantly better than we were last year.”
The Golden Eagles have two major concerns, and for the first time this season, it is not the defense. Key players like Devonta Foster, Draper Riley and Anthony Swain have all been absent on the field due to an array of injuries. If USM is to make a run at the C-USA title, it will need its major pieces healthy.
Foster’s presence has been sorely missed in the secondary. Though he may not fill up the stat sheet, he does important things like giving extra protection over the top for the cornerbacks in coverage and preventing running backs from turning seven-yard runs into explosive plays.
Another thing Southern Miss must avoid at all costs is to avoid its own hype. Since Monken has been at USM, he has preached and motivated his team through the underdog mentality.
With three dominating wins and the scare against Nebraska, Southern Miss will now be feared in the conference and Monken says that moving forward and not looking into the past will be huge for his team.
“Can’t carry over yards, can’t carry over turnovers and can’t carry over sacks,” Monken said. “That was last week and that was a different opponent.”
“The challenge is how do you bring it every week?” Monken said. “The best teams (and) the best players find a way to bring it every day in practice.”
The Golden Eagles might be their own worst enemy going forward and will need to focus especially this week. Southern Miss has also been used to following a set schedule as far as practices. Every game has been on a Saturday and they have been in a nice rhythm and routine, but it gets broken up this week by the Friday night game.
But for Monken, the process is simple and hopes his team will be able to focus after such a big win.
“(We need to) eliminate the noise,” Monken said. “Eliminate the noise of the people that think you aren’t good enough at times and then those that think you can beat anybody and we’re great.”
Marshall (4-1, 1-0) has not missed a beat since star quarterback Rakeem Cato left, but still, Southern Miss should be able to slow down Marshall long enough to take a lead and hold on, but it will not be easy.
They still return a potent offense that is led by their twin headed rushing attack. Both Tony Pittman and Devon Johnson will likely give the Southern Miss defense fits on the ground. Pittman and Johnson have both rushed for three touchdowns on the year and combine for nearly 700 yards on the ground; however, Johnson is questionable to play.
If he does play, the 244-pound back will give the Golden Eagles a chance to slow down one of the toughest backs in the country.
The Thundering Herd’s starter at quarterback, Michael Birdsong, has been out since week two and backup Chase Litton, a freshman, has stepped in to fill the void.
If Marshall has a weak point, it is their offense. If Southern Miss can abuse the offensive line and get to Litton early, the Marshall offense will struggle.
One of the more underrated aspects about Marshall is their stadium. Most do not consider it one of the toughest places to play, but in C-USA, it is without a doubt one of the toughest.
Mullens, Martin and Thomas will need to be on the same page early for the Golden Eagles to have success. They will also need to lean heavily on running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith.
Smith has been a true all-purpose threat coming out of the backfield this season and is one of their biggest home run threats on the Golden Eagle offense. Smith had nine carries for 84 yards and a touchdown, while also picking up seven receptions for 85 yards. For the season, Smith has averaged a gaudy 10 yards per offensive touch.
If Southern Miss plays like it is capable of playing, especially the way they did against North Texas, they will be hard pressed to not come away with a victory, establishing itself as a true contender for the conference title.
Kickoff is at 6 p.m. Friday night in Huntington, West Virginia.