After a gritty win versus North Alabama, Southern Miss (2-5, 1-2 Conference USA) looks to improve its conference record in a key matchup against Western Kentucky University (WKU) (2-6, 1-3 Conference USA).
Southern Miss had its best game defensively last week. North Alabama only gained 23 rushing yards on 23 attempts, holding 175 yards by the end of the game.
“I felt like we’ve gotten better in [defending] the run game the last few weeks, but I really felt in the defensive backfield against the pass and even against the run in the backfield, we played better,” Interim Head Coach Tim Billings said. “We gave up less explosives and I think that was a good start for us. We gained some confidence in the back end. I was really proud of our defensive backs how they played both the run and the pass.”
On offense, the Golden Eagles passed for only 100 yards and turned the ball, but rushed for a season high of 245 yards. RB Frank Gore led the team with 103 yards, while fellow RB Darius Maberry contributed 53 yards. Kevin Perkins emerged as a top target against the Lions as he scored all three of the Golden Eagles’ touchdowns.
Southern Miss had another season high of four turnovers, which North Alabama scored all of its points from. Golden Eagles Quarterback Trey Lowe turned the ball over three times with two interceptions and one fumble, after the team already fumbled the opening kickoff.
After finishing 2019 with a 8-4 record and bowl victory, WKU has fallen towards the bottom of the East division of C-USA. The Hilltoppers have struggled offensively and are only scoring an average of 15 points per game and 273 yards per game, both of which are conference lows.
Southern Miss’s defense will look to continue its momentum against the Hilltoppers’ offense. Defensive Coordinator Tony Pecoraro describes the defense’s approach against WKU.
“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of us and do the little things this week and make sure we own the line of scrimmage,” Pecoraro said. “I think that’s going to be extremely important. Put them in some throwing situations where we can do some different things there, but if it’s going to be a third and short ball game all day, we’ll be in trouble.”
Cornerback Natrone Brooks, who had his first career interception at Southern Miss last week, describes how he and the backfield will defend the Hilltoppers’ possible trick plays.
“The thing you really have to do is lock on the receivers and not just look in the backfield because if they’re running trick plays and your eyes are caught in the backfield, you’ll lose your man,” Brooks said. “The biggest thing is to keep your eyes on your man and do your job.”
Billings says that it’s possible backup quarterback Tate Whatley will return this week against WKU. Starter quarterback Jack Abraham is fully out this season due to an injury he sustained during the Oct. 31 game against Rice.
“We’re having our fingers crossed for Tate [to come back] this week,” said Billings.
WKU has the second-rated passing defense in the Conference USA, only allowing 180 passing yards per game. Southern Miss will look to continue its success running the ball, an area which Offensive Coordinator Matt Kubik praises the Hilltoppers in defending against.
“They’re going to commit to stopping the run and they do a great job at that,” Kubik said. “We’re going to have to be patient and take what they give us there.”
Billings says that, with the strength of the Hilltoppers’ defense, the Nasty Bunch will have to step in to assist the team’s offense.
“I told the defense we’ve got to get off the field and we’ve got to give the offense good field position because it’s hard to go a long way against their defense,” Billings said. “We need to get some more takebacks and give our offense good field position. [… We] need that to score points in this football game.”
The game will start at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and shown on CBS Sports.