There will be several key questions the Southern Miss football team has to answer in Saturday's 7 p.m. contest at UTEP.
The two most pressing issues for USM on Saturday are whether the defense can slow down UTEP's strong ground game and whether the Golden Eagles' passing game can finally get clicking.
USM (2-1) enters the game coming off a disappointing 37-31 loss to Troy, but UTEP (1-2) is in an even worse spot after a humbling 66-14 loss to Army in El Paso last week.
After giving up 176 yards on 36 carries to Troy's Jordan Chunn last week, the USM defense faces potentially an even tougher task in slowing down UTEP star running back Aaron Jones, who has rushed 60 times for 439 yards and four touchdowns.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
UTEP has the biggest offensive line in Conference USA, averaging 320 pounds in the starting five. There is not one player below 300 pounds on the two-deep depth chart.
“They’re a good football team,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “They run the ball well. They mix it up though and give you a lot of different looks. Defensively, they are physical and they fly around. The biggest thing is we’re on the road in conference. I worry about us more than anything. We’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of our business and being precise in what we do.”
USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens has struggled to find his stride early in the season, throwing six interceptions. He has completed 58 percent of his passes for 737 yards and six touchdowns.
It will be important for Mullens to get going early. Five of his interceptions this season have come in the first half.
While Mullens has a chance to get going at UTEP, the Miners have been victimized more on the ground than through the air.
UTEP is allowing 245.3 yards a game on the ground this season, including 426 yards by Army last week.
While USM runs a fast-paced spread and Army employs the triple-option, the Golden Eagles should have a chance to put up yardage on the ground behind the strong running back duo of junior Ito Smith and redshirt junior George Payne. Smith ranks fourth in the nation in rushing yardage at 432, one spot behind UTEP's Jones at 439. Smith also has four rushing touchdowns and eight catches for 57 yards.
Payne has run the ball 35 times for 254 yards and a score.
While USM has multiple options in the ground game, Jones makes up almost the entirety of the Miners' rushing attack. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Jones has rushed for 439 of UTEP's 512 yards on the ground.
“He’s got speed, power,” Hopson said. “He’s a really good back.”
Watch the game: Saturday's USM-UTEP contest will be available to watch via live stream at CampusInsiders.com. The Sept. 24 Rice and Oct. 15 LSU games are the only remaining contests that haven't been announced as TV games. The LSU game will likely be picked up by an ESPN-affiliated network.
Who: Southern Miss vs. UTEP
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: El Paso, Texas
Radio: 104.9 FM