Sports

Southern Miss passing game should break through vs. Rice

Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens scores the first Golden Eagle touchdown against Savannah State on Sept. 10 in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens scores the first Golden Eagle touchdown against Savannah State on Sept. 10 in Hattiesburg. ttisbell@sunherald.com

The Southern Miss football team took a step forward Saturday at UTEP with a 34-7 victory, but it was a relatively small one.

During a 21-0 run in the second quarter you saw flashes of the 2015 team that could turn a competitive game into a blowout in the matter of a few minutes. In the second half, the Golden Eagles only managed 10 points against a UTEP team that grew increasingly hapless on offense.

The defense played its best game of the season against FBS competition. The offense made progress, but the performance still leaves you scratching your head on why the group hasn't been able to do more through four games.

Led by junior Ito Smith and redshirt junior George Payne, the ground game has been stellar. The Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0) rank 17th nationally with an average of 247.8 yards a game.

Individually, Smith ranks third in the nation with 540 yards rushing with four 100-yard games. Payne, who has hit the 100-yard mark twice, has 44 carries for 293 yards and a touchdown.

While UTEP's Aaron Jones has 26 more rushing yards this season, Smith increasingly looks like the best running back in Conference USA.

Room to grow

As for USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens and the passing game, there's still plenty of room for improvement. Mullens did go without throwing an interception for the first time this season on Saturday, but he and his receivers were never fully on the same page outside of the second quarter.

Mullens finished 16 of 27 for 176 yards and three touchdowns.

While Mullens has yet to come close to the pace he set a year ago, he may break through soon.

USM hosts winless Rice at 6 p.m. on Saturday in a game that gives Mullens and his receivers a perfect chance to gain some confidence before they hit the meat of the Conference USA schedule.

Rice (0-4, 0-2) ranks 125th in the nation in total defense, allowing 535 yards a game. Of that total, the Owls have allowed 296 yards a game through the air.

The Southern Miss offense has stumbled out of the gate all season. While USM has dominated the second, third and fourth quarters this season, it has been out-scored by a total of 45-38 in the first quarter.

If there ever was a chance for the USM offense to get going early, it's this Saturday.

Easy path ahead

Many labeled USM's conference schedule as a soft one before the season started and it's never looked easier than it does right now.

The two teams expected to be USM's toughest conference opponents, Louisiana Tech and Marshall, have to come to Hattiesburg. Those two squads are a combined 2-5 and struggling badly on defense.

You can make an argument that Troy, which upset USM 37-31 in Hattiesburg on Sept. 17, is better than any of the seven remaining conference opponents USM has to face this season.

Trips to UTSA on Oct. 8 and Old Dominion on Nov. 12 are likely the toughest two conference road games remaining. Old Dominion is 2-2 and 1-0 in conference USA play after beating UTSA (1-3, 0-1) in a 33-19 game in Norfolk, Va., this past Saturday.

The C-USA West is there to be had for Southern Miss. If the Eagles finally get rolling in the passing game, they have a chance to make a dominant run through the conference slate.

Patrick Magee: pmagee@sunherald.com, @Patrick_Magee, facebook.com/MageeOnSports

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Rice

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Hattiesburg

Radio: 104.9 FM

TV: None

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