Southern Miss

Troy offers biggest challenge yet for Southern Miss

Southern Miss receiver Isaiah Jones points at a Savannah State defender after making a cut back to the middle of the field Saturday in Hattiesburg. Jones scored on the play.
Southern Miss receiver Isaiah Jones points at a Savannah State defender after making a cut back to the middle of the field Saturday in Hattiesburg. Jones scored on the play. ttisbell@sunherald.com

If you're already chalking up Saturday's home game for Southern Miss as a victory, you'd be making a mistake.

The Troy football team that USM (2-0) hosts at 6 p.m. on Saturday is likely one of the three best opponents that will walk into Roberts Stadium this season. The other two are Marshall and Louisiana Tech.

Las Vegas sees Troy as an 11-point underdog, but that may be a little on the generous side for the Golden Eagles. USM has the right to be the home field favorite, but Troy appears to be the best team it has played to this point.

If you caught any of Florida's 45-7 win over Kentucky this past Saturday, you'd see that the Wildcats are still in collapse mode after giving up a 35-10 lead late in the first half of a 44-35 win by the Golden Eagles in the season opener in Lexington. Before Kentucky finally scored in the fourth quarter Saturday, it had been out-scored 79-0 going back to the start of USM's rally the week prior.

The same Kentucky quarterback who threw for 227 yards in the first quarter against USM, sophomore Drew Barker, completed just 2-of-10 passes for 10 yards and three interceptions against Florida. It's not often a guy throws more interceptions than completed passes.

Crucial contest

USM needed Kentucky to go on and have a respectable season to prop up its strength of schedule, but that now appears unlikely. At the moment, Troy appears to a better team than Kentucky.

Troy is 1-1, but that lone defeat is one of the best showings in a losing effort early in the 2016 campaign. The Trojans lost 30-24 Saturday at Clemson, which has much of the talent back from a team that played for a national title a year ago. Clemson was No. 2 in the nation entering last week's game.

The tight outcome against Troy dropped Clemson three spots to No. 5.

While Clemson may not be playing up to its usual lofty standard, Troy did a good job of making the Tigers looked bad. Clemson pulled away late, but coach Neal Brown's Troy squad looked like the better prepared team at times. Clemson out-gained Troy by less than 30 yards, 414-386.

On defense, Troy consistently frustrated Heisman Trophy contender Deshaun Watson and the rest of the Clemson offense, which produced just 122 yards rushing on 32 carries.

If the name of the Troy head coach sounds familiar, there's good reason. The 36-year-old Brown was considered a strong candidate for the USM head job when Todd Monken was hired after the 2012 season. Brown was then the offensive coordinator at Kentucky.

Troy hired Brown after the 2014 campaign, replacing long-time head coach Larry Blakeney.

After going 4-8 in 2015, it appears Brown has made significant progress in year two on the job. Troy has a good shot at ending a five-year bowl drought.

Advantage: USM

Along with the home field edge, USM will have the advantage of coming off what was essentially a bye week in a 56-0 win over Savannah State. It had to be an exhausting effort for Troy to stick with Clemson on the road. USM should have more bullets left in the chamber while Troy is stuck with a second consecutive tough road game.

One area of concern for Troy has to be its quarterback play. A Clemson front seven loaded with NFL caliber talent forced a total of three interceptions, including two by primary quarterback Brandon Slivers. There were a couple of throws made in a panic that cost Troy dearly.

While USM doesn't have a defensive line of Clemson's caliber, the Golden Eagles have shown they can get after the quarterback with nine sacks through two games.

The Golden Eagles will be the favorite on Saturday, but a lackluster effort could lead to a setback that seemed very unlikely to start the season.

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Troy

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: beIN Sports

Radio: 104.9 FM

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