Southern Miss is coming off a 41-23 loss in their conference opener against Rice and are in an awkward state in their rebuilding process.
With any rebuilding athletic program, football – collegiate or professional – there are three phases every team goes through before the rebuilding stage is complete. The first is establishing a strong infrastructure with a good coach that understands the big picture. The second is bringing in the talent and athletes that fit the coach’s plan. The third and most difficult phase is learning how to win.
Right now, the Golden Eagles are in the third phase in trying to learn what it takes to win consistently. Evidenced by the Rice loss, USM has the talent and team speed necessary to compete in Conference USA, but they make too many mental errors late in games to win consistently.
Looking at the Rice game, USM was in a good position late in the third quarter after scoring a touchdown to cut the deficit to just 20-16. But then, the wheels came off and the mental mistakes took over.
“We missed an extra point; we mishandled a snap on a field goal; we gave up three or four big third down and long (plays) that continued drives,” said head coach Todd Monken. “Their first drive and then when we cut it to 20-16, another big third down we allowed them to convert. Offensively, missing big plays that we had opportunities to make and turning the ball over twice in our end that led to 10 points.”
Those are the types of mistakes that can be corrected with mental toughness, an extremely underrated quality of any good football team. USM will need to develop mental toughness in order to learn how to win tough games and it starts this weekend against Middle Tennessee State (3-2, 2-0).
When evaluating the Blue Raiders, it is evident that their strength is their offense. They routinely move the ball well and are averaging 38.6 points per game.
“They are throwing the ball quickly on the perimeter,” Monken said. “They go up tempo. They really spread the field. In the end, I think they do a really good job of running it. I know he comes from a background similar to us in terms of throwing it, but they are doing a really good job of running it.”
Their strength offensively is easily their ability to chew up yards in the running game. They have four players who have at least 150 yards rushing and are averaging over 220 yards on the ground per game.
“I think three of them at one point each had 100-yard games last year,” Monken said. “The Whatley kid (Reggie Whatley) is a little faster, a little more explosive. Plus they have a couple of bigger guys. They do a nice job of rotating them and keeping them fresh.”
Sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer is the straw that stirs the drink offensively for MTSU. He has 10 total touchdowns so far and is the type of dual-threat quarterback that has given the Golden Eagle defense fits so far this season.
However, Grammer has a tendency to have a couple of errant throws each game so it will be key for cornerbacks Kalan Reed and Picasso Nelson Jr., to turn those throws into interceptions to establish momentum.
With the USM defense in for a tough challenge, the offense will need to step up huge in order to keep the game close. It would be smart for USM to try to establish its running game in order to keep the Blue Raider offense off the field.
“We have got to be more balanced,” Monken said. “In the end, it is about moving the ball, scoring touchdowns however we need to do that. It starts with being able to control the ball, get first downs and a big part of that is being able to run it.”
While USM has used several backs this year, it appears that sophomore running back George Payne will be called on to shoulder the load.
“We have to do a better job of getting George more opportunities,” Monken said. “George is a hard guy to bring down. He is a physical runner. That is obvious.”
The Golden Eagles are in for a tough test this weekend and are still trying to learn how to win. They will have to seriously limit the mental mistakes, establish the running game and make MTSU turn the ball over a few times to get a win.
Kickoff is at 11 a.m. in Murfreesboro, Tennessee at Floyd Stadium.