The Southern Miss football season is at another low point at the worst possible time.
The Golden Eagles faced a must-win situation last week at Charlotte and turned in arguably their worst performance of the season in a 20-17 loss, making USM 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Conference USA play.
USM’s chances of bowl eligibility appear to be dim with Marshall (5-2, 3-1), UAB (7-1, 5-0) and Louisiana Tech (6-2, 4-1) still on the schedule. In the season finale, USM will travel to play a pesky UTEP squad that’s inching closer and closer to ending a 20-game losing streak.
There’s only one game remaining where USM will likely be considered the favorite and that contest takes place 1,100 miles away in El Paso, Texas.
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There remains the chance that USM will schedule a 12th game for Dec. 1 with South Carolina appearing to be a good possibility. The Gamecocks need to catch a break to reach six wins and bowl eligibility over the final four games of the season. South Carolina is 4-3 with games remaining at Ole Miss, at No. 13 Florida and at No. 2 Clemson. The only game that appears to be a sure victory is a Nov. 17 home game against Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Don’t blame the D
There was always the possibility that the 2018 campaign could turn into a year of transition for the Golden Eagles, and that appears to be the situation for third-year head coach Jay Hopson and his staff.
If there’s one thing you can be sure of after seven games, it’s that the defense isn’t to blame.
The Golden Eagles rank third in Conference USA in scoring defense at 20.1 points a game and 21 of the 141 points allowed this season have come directly off turnovers committed by USM quarterback Jack Abraham — a fumble recovery in the end zone and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
USM ranks behind only UAB in C-USA in total defense with 288.0 yards allowed a game. Only Clemson rates better nationally than USM in first downs allowed this season. The Golden Eagles give up 14.7 first downs a game and Clemson checks in at 14.3.
It’s plainly clear that the main reason USM is in this situation is the shaky play of the offense.
The main problem for offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson’s group is that it has failed to make plays when it counts. USM ranks 125th in the nation in third-down conversions per game at 4.2 and ranks 116th overall in third-down conversion percentage at 32.47.
USM has wasted too many drives that have reached well into the opponent’s territory. A case example in Saturday’s game was Abraham’s 70-yard connection with Tim Jones that eventually resulted in a failed attempt at a 36-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield.
Abraham’s turnover issues
The USM offensive line has done a better job the last two weeks of blocking in the ground game, but the group put in a poor showing Saturday while trying to protect Abraham. The Eagles gave up three sacks and the quarterback took several other punishing hits.
Charlotte also made Abraham pay for his own mistakes, picking off three passes — including a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown by Juwan Foggie.
Abraham, who is expected to start Saturday’s 2 p.m. home game against Marshall, left late in the third quarter after he took a hard hit. He was replaced by true freshman Tate Whatley, who led the team in rushing with eight carries for 62 yards and completed six of eight passes for 87 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Whatley will likely be the No. 2 quarterback moving forward after Hopson revealed after practice on Tuesday that redshirt senior Kwadra Griggs, who was suspended for the first two games of the season and is dealing with the recent death of his mother, is no longer with the team.
If Abraham’s interceptions continue to pile up, Whatley may get a chance in the final weeks to make a case for himself as the starter entering the 2019 campaign.
Abraham has improved on USM’s accuracy in the passing game by hitting 72.3 percent of his attempts, but his 10 interceptions have played a large role in the offensive woes.
USM’s two quarterbacks last year, Griggs and Keon Howard, combined to complete 56.3 percent of their passes, but their combined interception total added up to seven. Griggs, last year’s primary starter, had 16 passing touchdowns with two interceptions.
Griggs and Howard were also athletic enough to take off and run for a first down when the pass rush was closing in. Abraham hasn’t shown that ability much, but Whatley has proven that he can pull off big gainers when he decides to run.
There’s always ...
Losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Charlotte have derailed USM’s season, but there is reason for hope looking ahead to 2019. USM is set to lose only one starter on offense, redshirt senior tight end Jay’Shawn Washington, and the two other most experienced starters are redshirt junior offensive linemen — left tackle Drake Dorbeck and left guard Ty Pollard.
The team’s most gifted skill players on offense also happen to be some of the youngest — redshirt sophomore receiver Quez Watkins, freshman running back Trivenskey Mosley, sophomore receiver Jaylond Adams and Jones, who is also a sophomore.
On defense, USM will have three starters wrap up their eligibility after this season — nose tackle LaDarius Harris, defensive end Darian Yancey and middle linebacker Jeremy Sangster.
With 18 of 22 starters returning, USM should be in good shape to return to contention in the Conference USA West next season.
Whether the offensive staff will remain intact to coach the returning talent remains to be seen. If the offense can’t start finishing drives beginning with this Saturday’s home game against Marshall, the 2018 season will quickly become a lost cause.