While many will point to the improved play of Keon Howard at quarterback and another game-breaking performance by running back Ito Smith, it all started up front on offense for Southern Miss at UTSA Saturday.
The Golden Eagles (3-2, 1-1 in C-USA) put together their best second half of the season to rally for a 31-29 victory behind an offensive line that received significant reshuffling to go along with the return of redshirt sophomore left tackle Drake Dorbeck.
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Dorbeck suffered a fracture in his forearm during the season-opening 24-17 loss to Kentucky, keeping him off the field for three games.
When asked what it meant to get back Dorbeck into the fold on Saturday, USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson answered, “More than people know.”
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“Dorbeck, in my opinion, played a very solid game,” Dawson said. “The long run by Ito, you could really account him for that. In that specific scheme, it’s very hard for the tackle with quick motion and stuff to see a weak box and turn back and block on the end. I don’t know if I’ve had a lot of tackles do that in that specific deal.
“Technically, we’re telling him to push. But he didn’t, he saw a weak box and countered back on the guy and sealed it off. If he doesn’t do that, the guy makes the tackle. That was a very headsy play for him.”
Changes on the right side
Redshirt senior Jerry Harris, who received starts at left tackle while Dorbeck was out, was moved to right tackle on Saturday while Ty Pollard, the typical starter at right tackle, was moved inside to right guard.
It’s unusual to move significant pieces around at the midway point of the season, but Dawson saw it as a necessity with Dorbeck’s return and an inconsistent showing in a 43-28 loss to North Texas.
“After getting Drake back, we went back and evaluated the line as a whole from the first few games,” Dawson said. “I just felt like making that move was the best way moving forward to give us a chance to win. Jerry is a very athletic guy and Drake is a very athletic guy.”
Pollard made the most drastic move after playing exclusively at right tackle the last two seasons, but Dawson said that he made the switch look easy.
“He didn’t have any reps at that position until (Oct. 2),” Dawson said. “Ty is a smart football player so I don’t know if I’d do that with just anybody. With him, I felt good about it. The biggest deal to me with moves like that is the kids have to buy into it. The kids have to buy into ‘This is the best for the unit. It’s not necessarily what’s best for you at certain times.’ To his credit, he bought into it. He played hard, played well.”
With redshirt freshman Arvin Fletcher at left guard and redshirt senior Devin Farrior at center, Dawson may have found the best lineup going forward.
USM will host UTEP (0-6, 0-2) at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
A look at the West
The C-USA West was thrown into flux last week thanks to USM’s upset of UTSA and UAB’s stunning 23-22 win over the defending West champ, Louisiana Tech, in Birmingham.
North Texas (3-3, 2-0) sits atop the West, but the Mean Green will hit a difficult stretch over the next four weeks – UTSA on Saturday, a road game at FAU on Oct. 21, a home contest against Old Dominion on Oct. 28 and a game at Louisiana Tech on Nov. 4.
UAB, La. Tech, USM and Rice are all tied for second place with a 1-1 record.
The path to a C-USA West title is a difficult one for USM considering it has to keep winning and hope that UNT loses a pair of games down the stretch.
There’s a decent chance that the C-USA West champion will have a pair of conference losses at the end of the regular season.
With the emergence of FAU (3-3, 2-0) under head coach Lane Kiffin, the C-USA East is very much up for grabs with Marshall (4-1, 1-0) and WKU (3-2, 1-1) appearing to be the two other main contenders.
Who: UTEP vs. Southern Miss
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM
C-USA Power Rankings
1. Marshall (4-1, 1-0)
2. North Texas (3-2, 2-0)
3. Southern Miss (3-2, 1-1)
4. UTSA (3-1, 0-1)
5. FAU (3-3, 2-0)
6. UAB (3-2, 1-1)
7. La. Tech (3-3, 1-1)
8. WKU (3-2, 1-1)
9. MTSU (3-3, 1-1)
10. ODU (2-3, 0-1)
11. FIU (3-2, 2-1)
12. Rice (1-5, 1-1)
13. UTEP (0-6, 0-2)
14. Charlotte (0-6, 0-2)