The Southern Miss football team faces arguably a must win situation at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at North Texas.
The Golden Eagles sit at 5-5 and are in need of one more win to reach bowl eligibility. If they fall short against the Mean Green, the pressure will go up another notch when USM hosts a red hot Louisiana Tech team (8-3) in the regular season finale on Nov. 25.
USM has lost four of its last five games, but head coach Jay Hopson has kept an upbeat approach and he says that outlook applies to his players as well.
“We have great kids. They fight and practice hard,” he said. “This bunch is going to battle through all of its adversity and stay 100 percent positive.”
North Texas (4-6) needs wins Saturday over USM and in the regular season finale at UTEP to reach bowl eligibility. The Mean Green have lost the last three games, including a 45-7 thumping at Western Kentucky last week.
Both USM and North Texas enter Saturday with question marks at quarterback. North Texas freshman quarterback Mason Fine is considered doubtful due to a shoulder injury and it's uncertain whether USM senior quarterback Nick Mullens will be prepared to play.
If Fine is unable to go, senior Alec Morris will get the start. If Mullens isn't ready to play after suffering a concussion on Nov. 19 against Charlotte, USM will probably go with its own freshman, Keon Howard.
Howard showed plenty of potential last week in the 51-35 loss at Old Dominion, hitting 12 of 24 passes for 230 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His completion percentage was hurt by at least four dropped passes by receivers. Junior receiver Isaiah Jones, who had a nicely placed ball glance off his hands, was to blame for Howard's one interception.
Howard, who ran 28 times for 98 yards and a touchdown, will have to do a much better job of holding onto the ball after fumbling the ball away four times.
Hopson has heaped praise on Howard following last week's performance.
“With Keon, you can’t sit there and say he’s going to run it because he can throw the football like crazy,” Hopson said. “He’s a guy who can get out of the pocket sometimes and he can make guys miss and do some things of that nature.”
The Mean Green will also be without junior running back Jeffrey Wilson, who has rushed 142 times for 833 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. North Texas doesn't have very good depth at running back with junior Willy Ivery serving as the team's second leading rusher with 48 carries for 281 yards and four touchdowns.
The USM defense has shown weakness against the ground game in recent weeks, giving up far too many long runs. USM is allowing 167.3 rushing yards a game and 5 yards a carry.
“We have to fight through adversity,” Hopson said of his team this week. “We have to fight. You don’t have a second choice. You can fight or quit. We’re going to fight and at the end of the day that’s the one thing I’m proud of and I’ll always be proud of. I’m proud of this team; they’re digging in and fighting hard.”
Who: Southern Miss vs. North Texas
When: 4:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Denton, Texas
TV: beIN SPORTS
Radio: 104.9 FM