Southern Miss

Southern Miss hopes it can live up to the 1997 team’s defensive legacy

Patrick Surtain, who was a key member of the 1997 Southern Miss football team, went on to become a star cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.
Patrick Surtain, who was a key member of the 1997 Southern Miss football team, went on to become a star cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins. Sun Herald file

The Southern Miss football program will honor arguably the best team in program history with hopes of beginning a strong run through Conference USA play Saturday night in Hattiesburg.

The Golden Eagles (2-1) will jog into Roberts Stadium sporting uniforms identical to those worn by the 1997 Golden Eagles, who finished 9-3 with a roster loaded with some of the best players to ever wear the black and gold. North Texas (2-2, 1-0) will be the opponent in USM's C-USA opener.

This weekend marks a 20-year reunion for the 1997 squad that featured future NFL stars like defensive lineman Adalius Thomas and cornerback Patrick Surtain.

That Jeff Bower-coached team also wasn't lacking in offensive talent with quarterback Lee Roberts, running back Harold Shaw and two of the better receivers in program history – Todd Pinkston and Sherrod Gideon.

However, it was the defense that helped lead the way that year as USM finished 6-0 in C-USA and thumped Pittsburgh 41-7 in the Liberty Bowl. The only three losses were to Top 25 teams on the road – 21-6 at No. 2 Florida, 27-13 at No. 21 Alabama and 44-20 at No. 8 Tennessee.

Much like the 1997 squad that finished ranked No. 19 in the nation, this year's version of the Golden Eagles has a chance to be special thanks to a talented and deep defense.

USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro is using a defensive line rotation that goes 11 deep and an improved linebacking corps led by senior Sherrod Ruff and redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe. The secondary is loaded with experienced talent and the best cornerback duo in the conference in senior Cornell Armstrong and senior Curtis Mikell.

Through three games, USM ranks No. 6 in the nation in total defense with 241.3 yards allowed per game. The 1997 defense allowed 288.5 yards and 17.5 points a game against a very tough schedule.

The USM defense will face its toughest test yet against a North Texas team that leads C-USA in total offense (504 ypg) and scoring offense (37.8).

One key aspect of Saturday's game will be trying to slow down North Texas senior running back Jeffery Wilson, who has run 63 times for 518 yards and six touchdowns.

The USM defense has been watching film of the North Texas offense over the last week and Wilson popped off the screen.

"He made a big impression," Boothe said. "He's pretty good. A couple of times on film, he's made spectacular plays. We have to really keep him in check.

"They have athletes everywhere."

The next step for the Golden Eagles on defense is to create more turnovers after forcing just five through three games.


All-time series: Southern Miss holds a 6-5 edge over the Mean Green despite losing 29-23 last season in Denton. The series began in Denton in 1954 with a 15-7 win by North Texas.

C-USA opener: Southern Miss is 15-6 all-time in C-USA openers. The Golden Eagles have only had five losing seasons against C-USA competitions.

Third-down success: The USM defense will look to keep up its strong play in third-down situations. USM ranks second in the nation on third downs with offenses only converting in 6-of-41 tries.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee