Just as the Texas State game did in 2015 and Troy in 2016, the Southern Miss football team will find out Saturday how good it is against Sun Belt competition before the start of Conference USA play.
USM (1-1) travels to Louisiana-Monroe (0-1) for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday at 30,000-seat Malone Stadium. The Golden Eagles hold a 3-1 lead in the all-time series, but this will mark they first time they have played a game in Monroe.
At Texas State in 2015, the Golden Eagles' offense had a breakout performance with 613 yards in a 56-50 win. It was the first sign of a team that eventually became the best offensive squad in program history and just the second FBS team with a 4,000-yard passer (Nick Mullens) and two 1,000-yard rushers – Ito Smith and Jalen Richard. USM finished 9-5 and earned its first bowl bid since 2011.
Against Troy last year in Hattiesburg, USM fell 37-31 in a frustrating game for Mullens and first-year head coach Jay Hopson. Troy went on to finish 10-3, but the game dashed the Golden Eagles' lofty hopes of contending for a major bowl bid and began a difficult run of 3-6. Southern Miss recovered late to finish 7-6, but the Troy game was the first sign that the team would fall short of expectations.
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USM travels to Monroe as a 6 ½-point favorite, but this will be the home opener for the Warhawks and the first road trip of the season for the Golden Eagles.
USM redshirt junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs, who is making his second career start, will get a chance to show what he's capable of against a ULM defense that gave up 484 yards and 39.1 points a game a year ago.
ULM showed slight improvement on defense in the season opener at Memphis with a decent second half, but that game was played in extremely wet conditions. Memphis won the game 37-29 and and had 416 yards of total offense, 319 on the ground.
ULM did not play last week when its game at Florida State was canceled due to Hurricane Irma.
"It's hard to tell with those guys right now because we don't have a whole lot of information," USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "We have one game that was a monsoon. Memphis didn't really try to throw the football and you really couldn't. It was hard to get a grip on the ball.
"I don't know if they were aggressive because of the rain or it's a change in mentality. I don't know. Going into this week, it's going to be let's figure out and and see what they're going to do. If you look at last year to right now, it's kind of a split personality deal. I really don't know what to expect from them. We're going to have a plan for anything. We're going to have to adjust throughout the course of the game."
Dawson likely looked at those numbers this week and realized that his best course of action may be relying on Smith and first-year junior T'Rod Daniels in the ground game. After being held in check during the 24-17 loss to Kentucky in the season opener, the speedy duo at running back combined to run 27 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns last week.
First for Hopson
USM head coach Jay Hopson has coached in a lot of different stadiums throughout his 25-year career, but this will mark the first time he has helped lead a team into ULM.
However, Hopson, who grew up 77 miles away from Monroe in Vicksburg, has stepped on the Monroe campus plenty of times.
"I used to go to the football camp a long time ago when I was in high school," Hopson said. "That was back when it was Northeast Louisiana. That was back in the old days when you had put full pads on so it wasn't like it was a camp. It was like another week of two-a-days. You'd be miserable out there in July. I've been in that stadium several times, but this is the first time as a coach."
Saturday's game will be available on ESPN3.com and the WatchESPN app. If you have a cable subscription that includes ESPN, you should able to watch the game for free by logging in with your account.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Louisiana-Monroe
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Monroe, La.
TV: ESPN3.com, WatchESPN app
Radio: 104.9 FM