Coming off a disappointing season-opening loss, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles will begin a three-game road trip by visiting Memorial Stadium to play the 22nd ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers Sept. 7.
Week two for the Eagles will be an away game following the university’s decision to allow Nebraska to host the game for $2.125 million.
The Rock’s loud atmosphere engulfing head coach Todd Monken’s debut was short-lived when the Eagles gave away possessions early in the Texas State loss. Despite taking the lead from a Corey Acosta 36-yard field goal with fewer than six minutes remaining in the fourth, the Eagles could not preserve the victory.
In a surprising move, Calif. transfer Allan Bridgford started for the Eagles and threw 53 passes in the new Monken-style offense, completing 28 for 377 yards and a touchdown. The burden of extra passes came after failing to establish a solid running game.
The Eagles defense only surrendered 15 points and held Texas State to 134 yards passing and 81 yards on the ground.
However, Nebraska is coming off a three-point win against Wyoming.
Winning their 28th straight opener, the Cornhuskers had two late turnovers that almost cost them the game. Backed by Taylor Martinez’s three touchdowns in the air and Imani Cross’ two on the ground, Nebraska was able to overcome the adversity and cement their season-opening win.
Southern Miss would like to add a win to the pedestrian 1-3 overall record against the Cornhuskers and will have the opportunity with their first-ever appearance on the Big Ten Network.
Monken’s previous success at Oklahoma State as offensive coordinator relied heavily on setting up a running game to condense the defense for passing later. He’ll need to pull a page from that book and utilize Tyre Bracken and Kendrick Hardy against a Nebraska defense that gave up 219 yards on the ground.
“They are a good football team,” Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said about the Eagles in a recent interview. “I know they turned the ball over, but they threw for a lot of yards. They have a quarterback that can sling it.”
Bridgford’s Week one performance ranks him second in Conference USA in yards passing behind East Carolina’s Shane Carden. Bridgford should be able to build on his previous success as he separates himself from the offseason quarterback duel and can now receive the majority of the reps in practice. He’ll have the chance to continue his success as Nebraska gave up 383 yards passing against Wyoming.
Bridgford showed early signs of chemistry with his young receiving corps. Ricky Bradley Jr., playing in his first Golden Eagles game, caught seven passes for 193 yards, the fourth-best total of yards in a single game in school history. Tyre’oune Holmes caught 12 passes for 96 yards. The reception total ties for second-most by a Golden Eagle in a single game and most by an Eagles player appearing in his first game.
The Eagles defense will face a Nebraska team that dominated on the ground in their opener. The Cornhuskers ran 63 times for 375 yards and two touchdowns. However, Martinez was injured, but will play this weekend.
“I felt pretty sore,” Martinez said after being asked how he felt on Sunday. “I just have to get used to being hit again.”
The Eagles’ front seven will need to limit Martinez to passing and keep him in the pocket to mitigate his ability to extend plays or scramble for first downs. Martinez rushed for 80 yards against Wyoming.
In last year’s matchup, USM was able to do just that, but Martinez torched them through the air for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns. Southern Miss lost to Nebraska to open the 2012 season 49-20. The Cornhuskers also added 278 yards on the ground.
“They’re fast, and they play a confusing defense,” Martinez said. “I know they’re very athletic.”
With so many plays on the ground, time of possession will be an enormous factor. The Eagles will need to minimize turnovers and keep the Cornhuskers from draining the clock every drive. Southern Miss held the ball eight fewer minutes than Texas State.
“They are obviously better than the score they put up the other day,” Pelini said. “That is going to happen anytime you turn the ball over that many times.”
Nebraska will provide a hostile environment for Southern Miss to see how the Eagles compare to one of the best college football programs in the nation.