The Southern Miss football team travels to Mississippi State on Saturday with its best shot at beating the Bulldogs in almost three decades.
USM (1-0) is loaded with returning starters on both sides of the ball while MSU (1-0) has replaced several key players, including its starting quarterback and a long list of talented Bulldogs on defense. Also, Mississippi State is dealing with suspensions to multiple players. A pair of starters on defense, linebacker Willie Gay and defensive tackle Lee Autry, were among seven Bulldogs who sat out last week’s 38-28 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in New Orleans.
The suspensions came after the program was placed on NCAA probation following an investigation into academic violations.
It seems likely that many of the same players won’t be on the field for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. contest in Starkville.
The last time USM beat MSU was 38-21 in Jackson on Oct. 15, 1988. The series shifted to Hattiesburg the next season, but the Golden Eagles couldn’t keep the momentum going a week after a 30-26 victory over Florida State. MSU won 26-23 to start a run of four consecutive victories in the series.
A 13-10 loss in Starkville in 1990 was the last time Southern Miss had a legitimate shot at a victory against the Bulldogs.
The series didn’t resume until 2014, but Southern Miss was still struggling to work its way back from an 0-12 campaign in 2012 under Ellis Johnson. Todd Monken’s squad fell 49-0 in Starkville in the first contest, before putting up more of a fight against Dak Prescott and company in a 34-16 loss in Hattiesburg in 2015.
Saturday’s game will be shown on ESPNU. The last time a Southern Miss football game was broadcast on the station, the Golden Eagles beat Kentucky 44-35 in Lexington to start the 2016 season.
With the all-time series tied at 14-14-1, whoever wins Saturday gets the edge in the record book and bragging rights.
Here’s a rundown of what to expect on Saturday in Starkville:
What has to happen for USM
Southern Miss has to find a way to run the ball efficiently, possibly averaging 4-5 yards a carry. This will be difficult considering the recent struggles of the offensive line and the injury to sophomore running back Trivenskey Mosley, who appears out for a significant amount of time after going down early with an injury to his right leg in last week’s 38-10 victory over Alcorn State.
Redshirt sophomore Steven Anderson and redshirt freshman Jordan Kempf, who is the backup third-down back, will likely see their snaps increase with Mosley sidelined. Also, redshirt junior Kevin Perkins and freshman Dee Baker have a shot to see touches in the backfield.
Sophomore backup quarterback Tate Whatley, who is a much better runner than starter Jack Abraham, may have a larger role to play this week to help bolster the rushing attack.
USM needs to find a way to contain MSU quarterback Tommy Stevens, who is a gifted runner and passer. Last week, the Penn State transfer completed 20 of 30 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns while also running 11 times for 37 yards and TD.
The USM defense will likely have to create 2-3 MSU turnovers. USM head coach Jay Hopson and defensive coordinator Tim Billings have had a long time to prepare for this contest and I expect the Golden Eagles to put in a solid defensive effort.
What has to happen for MSU
The path to victory is simpler for the Bulldogs.
On offense, the Bulldogs need to hold onto the ball and consistently feed junior running back Kylin Hill, who ran 20 times for 197 yards and a touchdown against ULL last week.
Defensively, Mississippi State simply has to step up its performance after last week. If it gives up 163 yards rushing like it did last week against the Ragin’ Cajuns, the Bulldogs will be in danger of being upset.
Mississippi State started the week as an 18 1/2-point favorite, but that had dipped to 16 ½ points as of Friday. The over/under stands at 51 points.
If history is any indication, the game should be a relatively tight one.
There are only five FBS teams that have a current run of 12 games or more of holding opponents to 30 points or less. The Bulldogs are tied with Notre Dame with the longest streak of 15 games and USM is not far behind at 12.
A defensive battle seems likely.
Players sitting out
USM will be without redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins, who is being held out of the first two games for unspecified reasons. He caught 72 passes for 889 yards for nine touchdowns.
Hopson has declined to address injuries, but it seems unlikely that Mosley will play Saturday with an injury to his right leg.
Senior receiver De’Michael Harris is also a question mark for USM after sitting out the season opener.
It remains to be seen who will be suspended for Mississippi State, but the list should be similar to the one from last week.