As Southern Miss reeled off three consecutive wins to begin the month of October, the team’s fans began to zero in on this Saturday’s game against a struggling Tennessee squad as a potential mark in the win column.
That optimism was quelled somewhat by a 30-12 loss to UAB last week to end the three-game streak and draw concern about the play of the offense.
Southern Miss (5-3) will look to overcome last week’s underwhelming performance when it travels to Tennessee Saturday as a 6 1/2-point underdog for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff on the SEC Network. USM, which is 3-0 on the road, has responded well after its first two losses of the season, including a 31-29 win at Texas-San Antonio in arguably the team’s best game of the season.
While Tennessee’s unimpressive record of 3-5 has drawn plenty of heat for head coach Butch Jones, USM coach Jay Hopson sees the Volunteers as being the victim of tough luck.
“You look at their games and they’ve had some tough losses,” Hopson said. “The last second throw at Florida and the tough loss last week (at Kentucky). They had a tough last-second loss at South Carolina. They had a nice win against Georgia Tech, winning the first game of the season. They’re a team that has had some late, last-second losses. You look at some film and you see what type of football team they are. They have our upmost respect.”
Howard to start
Sophomore Keon Howard will make his fifth consecutive start at quarterback for the Golden Eagles Saturday, Hopson confirmed Friday to the Sun Herald.
Howard has played in seven games this season, completing 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,099 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Redshirt junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs will again be available off the bench Saturday after shaking off the rust in a fourth-quarter appearance against UAB last week. Griggs made three consecutive starts before being sidelined with a left hand injury prior to the UTSA contest.
Hopson went with Griggs in the fourth quarter last week in an effort to create some type of spark for the offense. Even though he was removed late, Howard’s numbers were at the very least adequate with 207 yards and one touchdown on 14-of-25 passing.
Griggs has had plenty of bright moments, but he needs to improve on his completion percentage of 52.2. He has thrown for 1,010 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
With both Howard and Griggs seeing a similar number of snaps this season, there isn’t much room between the two players when it comes to passing efficiency. Howard is at 134.9 and Griggs checks in at 131.1.
There’s no question as to who is the starting quarterback for Tennessee. Season-ending shoulder surgery for Quinten Dormado has put the ball in the hands of freshman Jarrett Guarantano, who has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 473 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Tennessee will also have its star running back, John Kelly, back after sitting out last week due to a suspension. He was cited by police on Oct. 24 when they found marijuana in a vehicle that Kelly and other Tennessee players were in.
Kelly has 125 carries for 615 yards and six touchdowns this year.
One way for USM to take pressure off Howard Saturday night is to find a way to run the ball more effectively after totaling just 81 yards on 26 rushes against UAB. USM senior running back Ito Smith contributed 36 yards on 12 carries.
“We’ve run the ball well. We didn’t run the ball well Saturday,” Hopson said. “That’s something we have to do. We have good running back and he’s a guy who we need to get the ball to and let him go. We understand we also have to play smart football, too. We have to see what the defense is doing and make sure we’re being wise when we give it to him.”
Saturday’s game will mark the sixth time that Tennessee and Southern Miss have played with the Volunteers taking all five previous meetings. The closest game in the series came on Sept. 2, 2000, when Tennessee pulled out a 19-16 decision.
USM is seeking its second win over an SEC team in as many seasons after winning 44-35 at Kentucky last year.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Tennessee
When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WBUV 104.9 FM