With Tim Billings taking over as Interim Head Coach after Scotty Walden’s departure to Austin Peay, Southern Miss focuses on winning its next conference matchup this weekend against the Rice University Owls.
Despite starting the season with a 1-4 overall record, Southern Miss is only 1-1 in conference play. Southern Miss was scheduled to play against conference opponents Florida Atlantic and UTEP, but those games were postponed to later dates due to COVID-related issues. This weekend will give Southern Miss the chance to keep a steady pace towards the conference championship.
Last week, the undefeated Liberty University Flames crushed Southern Miss 35-56. While the Golden Eagles scored first, the team allowed the Flames to score 35 unanswered points by the end of the first half. Southern Miss staged an impressive comeback in the third quarter, narrowing the lead down to seven points, but the effort was not enough to stop the Flames.
With this next game, Southern Miss looks to improve on lapses in its secondary. The Golden Eagles simply could not stop Liberty’s passing attack. Liberty Quarterback Malik Willis threw for 345 yards and six touchdowns on 24 completions of 31 attempts.
“We’ve had a lot of different secondaries because of injuries and COVID,” Interim Head Coach Tim Billings said. “The big push right now is we’ve got to get our secondary to eliminate big plays[. We] just want to make big plays and get off the field some.”
Southern Miss has allowed 30 passes over 15 yards throughout its first five games. The secondary has allowed a conference-high 17 passing touchdowns which needs to be accounted for.
Billings says that the team’s three weeks off due to postponements helped in ways, but hurt the defense’s tackling — an issue that he believes can be improved by the next matchup.
“I felt that later on in the game, we got better as far as tackling, but I really felt that having those two weeks off really helped us offensively as far as execution and giving those younger receivers reps,” Billings said. “I felt that defensively, it hurt us because we hadn’t done any tackling with that type of speed in three weeks.”
Quarterback Jack Abraham, who missed last game due to COVID, says he will be back for this weekend’s game against Rice. Sophomore Tate Whatley took over for Abraham against Liberty, rushing for four touchdowns and passing for one touchdown.
“I feel great and I’ll be able to play on Saturday for sure,” Abraham said.
Abraham described what he thought about the team’s performance against Liberty.
“There’s always execution things we need to get to the week and fix,” Abraham said. “I thought that the third quarter was awesome[,] and I love the way we fought. It kind of shows the character and the personality of this team that they’re going to persevere through all of the adversities of the season.”
Southern Miss earned 416 yards on offense against Liberty overall, making it the team’s second consecutive game with over 400 yards.
“Through the year, offensively, I feel like we’re starting to get a little better,” Billings said. “We have a lot of young receivers and an offensive line. I think they’re starting to gel. I really think our receivers are getting better every week.”
WR Jason Brownlee has emerged as the team’s top receiver since Tim Jones’ injury against Louisiana Tech. Brownlee has caught over 100 yards for three straight games and leads the team in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Rice has only played one game this season due to continuous weeks of COVID-related cancellations. The Owls lost in overtime against Middle Tennessee last week in stunning fashion. Despite the lack of games, Abraham describes their potential based on what he’s seen.
“They’re scrappy. They really play hard and [scheme wise, they’re] very similar,” Abraham said. “We kind of have a familiarity with them, but they fight hard and they’re a good bunch. We’re going to have to go out there and play our A-game.”
Two players on Rice recorded double digit tackles against Middle Tennessee. The Owls also got three sacks in its first game, which the Golden Eagles will have to watch out for. Offensively, Rice quarterback Mike Collins threw for four touchdowns in the first game of the year. Receiver Austin Trammell caught three passes for two touchdowns.
Kick-off is scheduled at 2 P.M. on Oct. 31 at The Rock.