HATTIESBURG -- Southern Miss' defense limited its last four opponents to less than 300 yards in offense.
That has not happened since the 2008 season.
A major reason has been because the Golden Eagles have been in the backfields of their opponents much more often than they were last year.
Last season, USM's defense had 15 quarterback sacks in its 12 games. This year, USM already has 21 sacks with three games to go.
Last season, USM had 66 tackles for loss all year long. This year, USM already has 61 tackles for loss.
"Lost-yardage plays are part of the stats that influence football games," Southern Miss defensive coordinator David Duggan said. "I think it's a combination of things. We're better, we're deeper, we've got more depth. Our guys are older, they're bigger, they're stronger, they're faster. So it's a culmination of a lot of things. It comes down to our players are playing really hard."
Duggan said when opponents have third-and long, they better beware.
"We've got some dynamic guys on the edge," he said. "Third-down situations we have been able to get after the passer a little bit. Hopefully we can continue with that."
Bandit end Dylan Bradley leads the Golden Eagles in sacks, with 5.5, and in tackles for loss, with 10.5.
Defensive end Xavier Thigpen has 4.5 quarterback sacks and another defensive end, Jaboree Poole, is next with 3.0.
Mike linebacker Brian Anderson is second to Bradley in tackles for loss with 8.5, followed by safety D'Nerius Antoine with 5.5 and defensive ends Thigpen and Darian Yancey with 4.5 each.
The Eagles (6-3 overall, 4-1 Conference USA) must get in Rice's backfield at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Houston.
Rice is 4-5 overall and 2-3 in C-USA, but has lost to Baylor, Texas, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech.
"They've got a veteran quarterback (Driphus Jackson), an excellent senior receiver (Dennis Parks) and really good running backs (Jowan Davis, Darik Dillard and Samuel Stewart)," Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken said.
Duggan is very aware of Jackson, who led Rice to a 41-23 victory over USM last season.
"Their quarterback is a guy that can extend plays," Duggan said. "What hurt us last year is him scrambling around and making some throws."
Switching to Southern Miss' offense, quarterback Nick Mullens doesn't scramble much, but he does know a thing or two about getting sacked. He learned that last year, when USM quarterbacks -- mostly Mullens -- were sacked 36 times.
This season it's been a lot better, as Mullens has been sacked only 14 times.
Last year, USM was tackled for loss 85 times. This year, it's at 37 with three games to go.
You better believe that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is pleased with those numbers.
"That's a testament to two things," Lindsey said. "Our offensive line is much improved. Those guys have been here a while and have played a lot of football. The speed of the game is not a surprise to them any more. They've improved technique-wise. That's the No. 1 thing.
"And I think our quarterback has done a pretty good job of getting the ball out of his hand. He knows where to go with the ball. Each play designed has answers for what the defense gives you. It's just a matter of the quarterback recognizing that and getting the ball out to the right place at the right time. And if it's not there, throw the ball away."
Lindsey stressed that lost yardage is one of the keys to a good offense.
"One of the things we emphasize is, obviously, turnovers and red zone score, but one of the things that goes with that is no lost-yardage plays," he said. "I think that's extremely important, whether you're handing the ball off or taking a sack. If you can avoid those lost-yardage plays, then it keeps you in position to get first downs."
So, as much as the skilled players get most of the publicity, a large part of USM's success this season results from the guys in the trenches.