Southern Miss

Southern Miss seeks end to SEC drought in Hattiesburg vs. Kentucky

Southern Miss senior running back Ito Smith should lead the way on offense when the Golden Eagles host Kentucky at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Southern Miss senior running back Ito Smith should lead the way on offense when the Golden Eagles host Kentucky at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Sun Herald file

The Southern Miss football team will try to earn its first win over an SEC team in Hattiesburg in nearly four decades Saturday afternoon.

USM hosts Kentucky at 3 p.m., marking the first time an SEC program other than Ole Miss or Mississippi State has played a game in Hattiesburg.

The last time USM beat an SEC squad at Roberts Stadium was Mississippi State in 1978. Bobby Collins was in his fourth season as head coach. Former USM athletic director Jeff Hammond, a retired U.S. Army officer, was a quarterback on the team and Sammy Winder, a former Denver Broncos star, pitched in at running back.

Southern Miss won the game 22-17 before a crowd of 31,720 and finished with a record of 7-4, receiving no bowl bid.

USM is 32-103-3 all-time against SEC competition after ending a 13-game losing streak against the conference with a 44-35 victory in the season opener at Kentucky last year.

While it was an impressive debut for Jay Hopson as USM head coach, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops is still stinging after watching his team give up a 35-10 lead in the second quarter.

When asked this week by a Kentucky radio station about his thoughts on last year's collapse against USM, he said “It disgusts me.”

While Stoops and the rest of his Wildcats enter Saturday's game determined to not let history repeat itself, Southern Miss is more concerned about what production it will get out of the quarterback position.

All eyes will be on the sideline Saturday afternoon when the USM offense prepares for its first snap of the 2017 campaign. Will it be Kwadra Griggs or Keon Howard?

Although Griggs has appeared to have an edge on Howard since the spring, there's no guarantee on who will be behind center. Griggs, a redshirt junior, did miss some time midway through camp with an injured finger, but he should have had sufficient time to heal up for Saturday's opener.

“He's throwing the ball well,” Hopson said Monday of Griggs. “He's moving well so I'm pleased with his progress (off the injury). That first day getting back you got to knock the cobwebs off a little bit, but I thought he did good on Saturday.”

It appears likely that both Griggs and Howard will receive playing time. Howard struggled with turnovers in two starts last season, but proved effective in the final two games of the 2016 campaign when he was inserted to run with the ball.

Griggs is likely to receive his first action since the 2015 season at Itawamba Community College when he completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 2,138 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Kentucky, like USM, is coming off a 7-6 season. The Wildcats closed strong last year, beating Louisville 41-38 in the regular season finale.

USM will be mostly familiar with Kentucky's personnel, but the Wildcats will have a different quarterback. Stephen Johnson replaced an injured Drew Barker last year and played well, completing 54.7 percent of his passes for 2,037 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Wildcats will likely rely on the run more Saturday than they did when they faced USM a year ago. Sophomore Benny Snell Jr. should lead the way after rushing 186 times for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“There are some things that they did more later in the year,” Hopson said of Kentucky's changes on offense. “They did a lot with their tailback later in the year, got into some Wildcat stuff a little bit more, but it’s still the same football team, same philosophy. As the year goes you find something that works for you and you go toward it.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Kentucky

When: 3 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 104.9 FM