Southern Miss

After near death experience, UAB football revives rivalry with Southern Miss

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith runs for his second touchdown during the game against UTEP in Hattiesburg on Oct. 14. Smith should be ready to go Saturday after sitting out the second half at Louisiana Tech.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith runs for his second touchdown during the game against UTEP in Hattiesburg on Oct. 14. Smith should be ready to go Saturday after sitting out the second half at Louisiana Tech. Special to the Sun Herald

It's been unpredictable, hard-fought, lopsided and incredibly wild.

Since its inception back in 2000, all of those descriptions have at one time or another fit the Southern Miss-UAB football rivalry.

For the last two seasons, it was simply nonexistent.

After UAB football's two-year hiatus, the Blazers and Golden Eagles revive their series at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.

USM leads the all-time series 10-5, but that record does not accurately reflect how narrow the margin has been at times between the two programs. The Golden Eagles won the first nine games of the series, but none of the first seven contests were decided by more than 9 points.

The Golden Eagles finally began to win by wide margins in Neil Callaway's first two seasons as UAB head coach in 2007 and 2008, 37-7 and 70-14.

The Blazers took their 56-point beat down in 2008 personally, earning revenge with a 30-17 victory in Birmingham the next season. That game began a stretch of five UAB victories over the Golden Eagles in the last six contests, including one of the most disappointing outcomes in USM history in 2011.

USM traveled to UAB on Nov. 17 that year as the No. 22 team in the nation with a record of 9-1 and on pace for potentially a bid to the Sugar Bowl. The Blazers were 2-8 and had little to play for.

The outcome: UAB 34, USM 31.

The Golden Eagles went on to stun Houston 49-28 in the C-USA title game and finish 12-2 in Larry Fedora's last season as USM head coach in 2011, but the loss to UAB is one that won't soon leave the coaches or players who were at Legion Field that night.

Ending the misery

Old school USM fans point back to a 3-0 win by USM in 2001 or the 70-14 destruction of the Blazers in 2008 as some of the more memorable moments in the rivalry, but the one that still brings a joyful tear to the eye of Golden Eagle fans is the 2013 contest.

Southern Miss was at the lowest point in program history when it traveled to Birmingham for the 2013 regular season finale riding a 23-game losing streak. It was Todd Monken's first season as USM head coach and his quarterback was freshman Nick Mullens, a native of nearby Hoover.

USM trailed 21-13 at halftime before putting together a 49-point explosion in the second half for a 62-27 win, ending the misery for Golden Eagle fans. Mullens threw for 370 yards, five touchdowns and ran for another score for the first of 20 wins as the Golden Eagles' quarterback.

The last UAB-USM game in 2014 almost became the final time the Blazers fielded a football team. Just two days after UAB won 45-24 in Hattiesburg, the UAB administration announced on Dec. 2 that the school was shutting down the football program due to the need for financial investments that it could not afford.

Six months later, UAB announced it would revive its football program with the goal of fielding a team for the 2017 season.

With head coach Bill Clark hanging around to rebuild UAB football, the Blazers have been surprisingly competitive this year with a 4-3 overall record and a 2-2 mark in Conference USA.

Three in a row

The man trying to fill Mullens' shoes as the USM quarterback at the moment is sophomore Keon Howard, who is seeking his fourth consecutive win since taking over as the starter.

Howard replaced redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs as the starter on Oct. 7 at UTSA. While not always perfect, he has come up with plays in crucial situations to help the Golden Eagles improve to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in C-USA. With a late touchdown toss in regulation and another in the second overtime, Howard led USM to a 34-27 win at Louisiana Tech in double overtime last week.

Over the last three games, Howard has completed 63 of 100 passes for 734 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also run 28 times for 122 yards.

USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson believes he has seen a steady progression from Howard over the last three games.

"Experience is probably one thing. The more you play, the better you get at it," Dawson said. "Two, young quarterbacks figure out how to win games. A lot of times when you go from high school to college, talent is one thing, but understanding how to manage a game is another thing. Hopefully when (the situation at La. Tech where Howard through an interception in overtime) comes up again we won't make those same mistakes."

Griggs continues to practice but he is still recovering from an injury to his left hand that requires a soft cast.

USM senior running back Ito Smith, who sat out the second half last week with what head coach Jay Hopson said was cramps, is expected to be full go for Saturday’s game.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

Game plan

Who: UAB vs. Southern Miss

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

TV: None

Radio: WBUV 104.9-FM