Early season stats can often be a false indicator, but the Southern Miss defense has earned its No. 10 national ranking in total defense through two weeks.
The Golden Eagles (1-1) appear to be much deeper in most areas on defense and that’s contributed to an average of just 196 yards allowed per game. Against a Kentucky team that averaged 420.2 yards a contest in 2016, USM allowed 254 yards (78 on the ground) in a 24-17 loss.
Last week in a 45-0 win over Southern, USM held the Jaguars to 140 yards on offense and prevented them from converting a single first down on 13 third-down attempts.
There is plenty of football to be played, but the USM defense has the potential to be one of the top groups in Conference USA.
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The defensive line is the most improved group with a 10-man rotation that’s been a headache for opposing offensive lines.
“That position is a group that plays hard every week,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “They were physical up front. They’re all playing about the same amount of plays. We have a nice rotation going. Up front they all played physical. I didn’t see anybody out there who didn’t play well. I’m pleased with those guys.”
USM bolstered its inside depth with the addition of 6-foot-3, 308-pound junior Delmond Landy, who joins redshirt senior Draper Riley (6-4, 305) as run stuffers in the middle.
While Landry has been a welcome addition, the improved play of redshirt senior Rod Crayton at defensive tackle has arguably been the biggest difference maker. He has eight tackles total with 2 ½ tackles for lost yardage.
D’Iberville’s Jacques Turner, a redshirt freshman defensive end, has been a handful as a pass rusher, leading the team with 1 ½ sacks. He also tipped a Southern pass that was intercepted on Saturday.
Overall, USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro has been pleased with his defensive front.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch,” he said. “What’s helped that is our depth. When you get to play 11 different guys on the defensive line, that keeps them fresher throughout the game. No. 2, they know they’ve got limited reps. When they get in there they know they’ve got to make the most of their reps. That will be huge for us in the long haul.”
USM is preparing to face a Louisiana-Monroe team that sat out last week due to the cancellation of its game at Florida State thanks to Hurricane Irma.
The only current ULM film that the USM staff has to pick apart in advance of Saturday’s game is footage from a 37-29 loss at Memphis in a soggy season opener. The Tigers jumped out to a 30-7 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Warhawks scored the final 15 points of the game, including a touchdown pass with 40 seconds remaining.
ULM (0-1) out-gained Memphis 425-416 behind a balanced offense, but four turnovers proved costly.
ULM used a two-quarterback rotation with junior Garrett Smith and sophomore Caleb Evans splitting snaps. Smith threw an interception, but proved to be the more productive passer and runner. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown while running 12 times for 48 yards.
The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Smith will start Saturday’s game against USM.
The USM defense will face a similar challenge to what it did against Kentucky, a spread scheme that likes to rely on the run.
The Warhawks use a running back-by-committee rotation that helped produce 146 yards on 49 carries last week. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore ran 15 times for 41 yards with one touchdown against Memphis.
“They’re a very good football team that likes to run the ball,” Pecoraro said. “We’ll have to stop the run for sure. They played two quarterbacks (against Memphis) and they’ll still do that for sure. They’ve got some playmakers.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. Louisiana-Monroe
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Monroe, La.
Radio: 104.9 FM