Southern Miss

Struggling Rice faces difficult task at Southern Miss

Southern Miss defensive back Devonta Foster races downfield for a touchdown after intercepting a pass against Troy in Hattiesburg on Sept. 17.
Southern Miss defensive back Devonta Foster races downfield for a touchdown after intercepting a pass against Troy in Hattiesburg on Sept. 17. ttisbell@sunherald.com

The Southern Miss football team will be the overwhelming favorite when it hosts a winless Rice squad at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0) will step on the Roberts Stadium turf as a 24-point favorite against a Rice squad that is scuffling on both sides of the ball.

The Owls lost a home game 42-35 to North Texas a week ago. The Mean Green put up 439 yards of offense a week after being held to 53 yards total in a 32-0 loss at Florida.

Rice (0-4, 0-2) did show some progress on offense against North Texas after averaging just 12.7 points a game through the first three contests, but that's little solace for a program that went a combined 25-15 from 2011-14. Since that stretch, the Owls have gone 5-11.

“I have to do a better job of coaching,” Rice coach David Bailiff said this week. “The assistants have to do a better job. The players have to do a better job of executing. We’re all in this together. Together is the only way we’re going to get it turned around.”

Rice seems unlikely to see a dramatic turnaround Saturday against a USM team that thrashed the Owls 65-10 in Houston a year ago. USM quarterback Nick Mullens tied a single-game program record with five touchdown passes in just the first half.

Mullens finished 23 of 31 for 386 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in one of the sharpest performances of his career. He hopes those numbers are indicative of what lies ahead Saturday night as he looks to hit his stride as the season nears its midway point.

Mullens took a step forward last week, completing 16 of 27 passes for 176 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for the first time this season.

Mullens has completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 913 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions.

He had thrown 10 touchdowns at this point of the season a year ago. He tossed 28 touchdowns over the final nine games of the season.

Saturday's contest offers a chance for Mullens and his receivers to build on the progress shown at UTEP.

“Nick is a guy that directs our offense,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said “We’re still working on his new receivers. That timing is coming down and it’s getting better and better each week.”

The Rice passing game has proven largely inept with senior Tyler Stehling completing just 52.7 percent of his passes for 648 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Senior running back Darik Dillard leads the Owls in rushing with 50 carries for 262 yards and two scores.

The Golden Eagles have been at their best on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards a carry – almost a full yard more than Rice (4.4).

Junior running back Ito Smith, the nation's third-leading rusher, has run 80 times for 540 yards and four touchdowns. He's been complemented well by redshirt junior George Payne, a powerful runner with 44 carries for 293 yards and a touchdown.

USM should have a nice day on the ground Saturday against a Rice team that is allowing 239 yards a game.

TV: There will be no video broadcast of Saturday's game, online or TV. The Coast's USM radio affiliate is 104.9 FM.

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Rice

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: none

Radio: 104.9 FM

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