Thursday night’s games in Conference USA provide more evidence that the Southern Miss football team can ill afford to look past Alcorn State in Saturday night’s season opener in Hattiesburg.
Central Arkansas toppled Western Kentucky 35-28 in Bowling Green to give the FCS its first win over an FBS program this season. Alabama State, a SWAC rival of Alcorn State, put a scare into UAB before the Blazers held on for a 24-19 victory in Birmingham.
USM will take the field as a 26-point favorite for a 6 p.m. kickoff at M.M. Roberts Stadium and head coach Jay Hopson’s deep familiarity with the Alcorn State program should give the Golden Eagles somewhat of an edge in preparations.
Hopson was the head coach at Alcorn State from 2012-15 and the Braves’ style of play isn’t that different from when he was leading the program. ASU head coach Fred McNair was Hopson’s quarterbacks coach in Lorman.
There are some players who are still on the Alcorn State roster who Hopson helped recruit.
“Most of the guys, if they had been there, would be the guys that are seniors,” he said. “It’s getting to that point. Again, we know they’re the defending SWAC Champions. New Mexico State (is an FBS team) and (Alcorn State) had them on the ropes last season. They had a big opportunity there to win a game. Rice and Prairie View was a battle (in 2018), so we’re not foolish enough to understand we’ve got a good football team coming to town and have to be ready.”
Hopson was the head coach at Alcorn State in 2014 when the Braves came up just short in a 26-20 loss at Southern Miss.
USM’s Alcorn State ties don’t stop with Hopson.
▪ Co-defensive coordinator Derek Nicholson was on Hopson’s Alcorn State staff in 2015.
▪ Offensive line coach Ryan Stanchek worked under both Hopson and McNair at Alcorn State and moved to offensive coordinator for the Braves last season.
▪ Graduate senior defensive end Terry Whittington played at Alcorn State for three seasons before transferring in this summer.
Saturday night’s game will mark just the third ASU-USM meeting with the Golden Eagles winning the two previous contests in 2009 and 2014.
Some other key topics for Saturday night’s game:
▪ No Watkins: USM will be playing without redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins, who is being held out the first two games of the season for unspecified reasons. Watkins was an All-Conference USA performer last year with 72 catches for 889 yards and nine touchdowns.
▪ Video info: The Alcorn State-Southern Miss game can be watched on ESPN-Plus, a video streaming subscription service that’s available for $4.99 a month. ESPN+ is available on the ESPN web site and through the ESPN app, which can be downloaded on your tablet, smart phone or streaming devices like Roku and Apple TV.
▪ No beer: Alcohol sales will be available at USM home games this season, but not for Saturday’s contest against Alcorn State. Beer and light wine will be on sell at Roberts Stadium for the first time in the Sept. 28 USM home game against UTEP.
▪ Talented Braves: Alcorn State, which is ranked No. 2 in the preseason HBCU poll, returns eight starters on offense and seven on a defense that led FCS in sacks per game (4.0) and tackles for loss per game (9.5)
The Braves are loaded at the skill positions on offense with the team’s leading passer, top two rushers and top three receivers back from a 2018 team that won the SWAC championship.
Redshirt senior quarterback Noah Johnson threw for 2,207 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions. On the ground, he had 144 carries for 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns. He completed 62.1 percent of his passes.
ASU’s top running back from a year ago, De’Shawn Waller, accounted for 1,215 yards and 12 touchdowns on 187 carries.
ASU’s top three receivers (Chris Blair, Juan Anthony and Raidarious Anthony) combined to catch 109 passes for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns.
▪ Four new starters to watch: Southern Miss is not lacking in experience in both sides of the ball, but there are four players who are on track to make their first starts for USM at key positions:
Tanner Hawthorne is a 6-foot-6, 305-pound junior right tackle who started his college career at Purdue before transferring to Glendale (Arizona) Community College for the 2018 season. He and Khalique Washington have been in a tight battle at right tackle and both should see playing time.
Santrell Latham is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt sophomore linebacker who is expected to make his first career start at strongside linebacker. After a strong spring and fall, his performance will be key to what should be a stellar defensive unit.
Torrence Brown is a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end/linebacker who is a graduate senior from Penn State. He has starting experience at PSU, but he has been hindered by injuries the last two years. If he stays healthy, USM’s defense should be a nightmare for C-USA opponents.
Ray Ladner is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt sophomore tight end from Hancock who earned the first-string spot on the depth chart. The tight end position is supposed to play a larger role in new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner’s scheme. Backup Naricuss Driver was signed to be a pass-receiving option at the position, but Ladner will be given an early shot to take hold of the starting job.