After falling short against Western Kentucky, Southern Miss has entered the bottom of its racket (2-6, 1-3 Conference USA). As the season comes close to the end, Southern Miss finds itself in a must-win situation against the University of Texas at San Antonio (USTA).
While the Golden Eagles have only won one of four conference games, the team’s hopes to compete for the conference championship are not out of the question yet. However, the odds are stacked against Southern Miss. The Roadrunners sit at the third spot in the C-USA West rankings, tied with Louisiana Tech at a 3-2 conference record. They are also coming off of a dominant 52-21 victory against UTEP.
While Southern Miss has improved on defense over the last two weeks, its offense has significantly regressed. Quarterbacks Tate Whatley and Jack Abraham have been out due to injuries sustained over the season, leaving the team without two key players. Last week, Billings expected Abraham to return, but now he says the senior quarterback is no longer with the team.
“He was here and no one worked harder than he did and was more committed to this football team while he was here, but he’s no longer here,” Billings said.
These uncertainties have caused problems for game-planning, which has damaged the offensive production. In his first two starts, quarterback Trey Lowe III has thrown for just 167 yards. He has thrown no touchdowns, and led to two interceptions on 18 completions of 34 attempts. Southern Miss has not had a passing touchdown since playing against Liberty on Oct. 24.
As Whatley comes back from an injury for the Golden Eagles, Lowe will most likely return to a backup. Offensive Coordinator Matt Kubik says that he saw Lowe improve weekly as he got more reps in games.
“I think Trey is definitely improving and he’s becoming more confident in his abilities,” Kubik said. “That’s what I told him yesterday when we watched tape[s]. A couple of those sacks, we’ve got to do a better job in protection […] but then a couple of those, we’ve got to see what we see there and let it rip. I think he’s improving and if his number gets called again, you’ll see a better Trey Lowe.”
Meanwhile, Southern Miss has found success running the ball. In the last two games, running back Kevin Perkins has scored all four of the Golden Eagles’ touchdowns, and RB Frank Gore Jr. has run for a combined 169 yards.
Southern Miss has only allowed two touchdowns in the last two games, but will face a challenge against a UTSA offense that has averaged over 400 yards and three touchdowns per game.
“It’s going to try our defense,” Billings said. “We are better on defense, [but] I just don’t know how good we are yet. We’ll find out this week, but defensively, we’ve got a big task in front of us.”
Dual threat quarterback Frank Harris has thrown for seven touchdowns and scored seven touchdowns while running the ball. The Golden Eagles will also have to defend against the Roadrunners’ top rusher, Sincere McCormick. McCormick averages nearly 20 carries per game and has rushed for 921 yards and seven touchdowns.
Defensive back Camron Harrell describes how the secondary is preparing for UTSA’s passing game.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before because we have some really good receivers on our team that we go up against every single day,” Harrell said. “We just got to have the [game plan], figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and how we can use that against them.”
Against WKU, Southern Miss got three sacks and had nine tackles for losses. Cornerback Malik Shorts led the team with 11 total tackles. Backup Zach Portlock also stepped in for an injured Santrell Latham, contributing eight key tackles.
“We’re gaining confidence on defense right now,” Billings said. “That’s one thing we didn’t have. We’re fairly healthy, so I’m just really excited about how they’re playing [and] the energy they’re playing with.”
Harrell explains how he, too, believes the defense has gained confidence over the past games.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed in the past couple of weeks is we go out there and our intent is to have fun,” Harrell said. “A lot of guys go out there and get nervous about the assignment or what they exactly have to do to execute their jobs, but the past few weeks, we’ve just been going out there and having fun together.”
Southern Miss allowed six sacks last week and will face a UTSA defensive front that ranks second in the conference for most sacks. The Roadrunners also have earned eight interceptions, which is the most in the C-USA.
“They’re a good front so far,” offensive lineman Tykeem Doss said. “They’re probably one of the best fronts we’ll play this year, but they are a three down front. With our defense, we work that all the time, so it should be very easy for us to pick it up.”
The game will kick-off on Saturday at 2:00 pm.