Southern Miss (7-3, 5-1 Conference USA) is just two wins away from playing in the conference championship game for the first time since 2011.
The Golden Eagles’ first challenge comes this Saturday when they host Old Dominion (5-5, 3-3 C-USA) in their final regular season home game. There is a chance USM could host the conference championship game, but the odds are very slim.
USM would need to beat ODU and Louisiana Tech, have FIU beat Western Kentucky this week, WKU beat Marshall next week, then end up ranked higher than the Hilltoppers to host the championship game. That is a lot that needs to fall their way, so the most likely scenario is USM winning out and playing the winner of WKU and Marshall on the road.
But first things first, they need to beat the Monarchs. ODU has had an up-and- down season, and a lot of it stems from having to bounce between quarterbacks.
“It all starts this week with Old Dominion,” said head coach Todd Monken. “They lost their quarterback and have gone between two different guys at quarterback. They are both good players and the team has won two in a row.”
Shuler Bentley was the starter to begin the season, but injuries and inconsistent play led to David Washington getting a chance to run the offense, which he has done a much better job of. Washington is completing just under 60 percent of his passes, much better than Bentley’s 50.5 completion percentage, and has tossed eight touchdowns to just three picks. Bentley had just six touchdowns and five interceptions in more playing time.
Washington is the guy who will be taking snaps under center for ODU Saturday after winning the job following a monster performance against Charlotte to end a three-game losing skid. The quarterback- turned wide receiver-turned quarterback could be a handful for the Golden Eagle defense.
He has a live arm, stands tall in the pocket and is dangerous as a scrambler outside of the pocket. His favorite target is Zach Pascal, who has caught 56 passes for 758 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Pascal had the game of his career against Marshall as well with 231 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches. In the last three games with Washington as quarterback, he has gone over the century mark and totaled 29 catches.
The Monarchs feature a strong running game as well with Ray Lawry having 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns. Their offense certainly has bright spots, but Southern Miss can easily shut it down as it has time and time again this season.
The Golden Eagles currently are ranked first in the conference in total yards, both offensively and defensively, but Monken reiterates every week, as he did again this week, saying stats don’t carry over. While stats are used as solid evidence in the sports world, he’s right. It all comes down to how you play on the field, not how the stat sheet says you played.
And this Southern Miss team has looked great on the field the past four weeks. It’s not just the offense or the defense. The Golden Eagles have come together as a complete team, special teams included. Monken said he is most happy for the guys who decided to stick around through the hard times and be a part of a good program here at USM.
“Not many guys stayed around,” Monken said. “They didn’t buy into this university or in us, but these guys did. They didn’t know when it would turn or when the fruits of our labor would pay off.”
“It’s like when you are in sales and you go to a door and don’t make a sale seven or eight times. And how many people would throw in the towel? And these guys didn’t. So they will always be and should be special to this university. They will always be special to our staff and this fan base for sticking by it. I’m happy for them that they will have a chance to make a run at a conference championship or the very least end their career going to a bowl game.”
Monken is spot on. This team deserves credit for sticking around through the hard times to reap the rewards of being a good football team. And that success will likely continue this week as USM appears to be the better team. Expect for the Golden Eagles to be playing for C-USA West division crown next week when they travel to Ruston, Louisiana.