The theme of Monday’s Southern Miss football press conference was definitive: Better ball security.
But the player who will be in charge of the offense in Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. Conference USA game at North Texas — Nick Mullens or Keon Howard — remains undecided.
Last Saturday, in a 51-35 loss to Old Dominion, fourth-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens, who had started 25 consecutive games, did not play due to concussion protocol from an injury he suffered the previous week against Charlotte. Since backup Parker Adamson also was injured against Charlotte, true freshman Keon Howard started and played the entire game.
The results were mixed. While Howard passed for 230 yards and one touchdown and ran 28 times for 98 yards and a score, he also lost four fumbles and was intercepted once.
USM coach Jay Hopson is sold on Howard’s abilities, but said “Nick is our starter,” although his medical status for the North Texas game will not be known “until toward the end of the week.”
On Monday, the Golden Eagles’ depth chart had Mullens listed No. 1 and Howard No. 2.
But back to ball security, while Howard had troubles against Old Dominion, he can’t be blamed for all the turnovers this season. USM has lost 13 fumbles and had 12 passes intercepted for a total of 25 turnovers. By contrast, Southern Miss opponents have lost three fumbles and had five passes intercepted for a total of eight.
The negative-17 turnover margin not only ranks USM 13th and last in Conference USA, but 128th and last in the entire NCAA’s FBS division.
“One thing about our turnovers, it’s not just one person,” Golden Eagles’ offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
“With a freshman quarterback, we knew there would be some growing pains. I was talking to Keon on the sideline (after several fumbles) and he said, ‘I can’t carry the ball like I did in high school.’”
Both Hopson and Dawson talked about how Howard continued to battle, even after the turnovers.
“His confidence was shrunk zero,” Dawson said. “I know you can’t shake that kid.”
On the other side of the team, defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro must “do a better job of putting out fires” and must create some turnovers of their own.
“Those are momentum plays,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball back to our offense.”
The Southern Miss defense ranks high in several categories. USM is No. 2 in the nation in third defensive down conversions (.244, 30 of 123), No. 3 in first downs allowed (138) and seventh in passing yards allowed (166.6 per game).
Running back Ito Smith gained 97 yards against Old Dominion and has 1,081 for the season. Only three other Golden Eagles have run for more than 1,000 yards in more than one season — Damion Fletcher (2006-09), Derrick Nix (1998, 1999, 2002) and Ben Garry (1976-77).
Senior center Cameron Tom has now started 45 straight games.
La. Tech kickoff
Conference USA and ESPN finally revealed a general game time Monday for the Nov. 25 Southern Miss regular season finale against Louisiana Tech.
The game will either kick off at 3 p.m. on ESPNews or at 4 p.m. on ESPNU at Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
The specific time for the game won't be announced until after the No. 19 slate of games.
Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) has already clinched the Conference USA West title while USM (5-5, 3-3) is in need of one more win to reach bowl eligibility.
Who: Southern Miss vs. North Texas
When: 4:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Denton, Texas
TV: beIN SPORTS
Radio: 104.9 FM