Four the fourth time in as many seasons, the Southern Miss football team is in need of a couple of breaks down the stretch to find its way to the Conference USA title game.
Under head coach Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles have fallen short the last three years with injuries at quarterback in October and November playing a role in those stumbles. USM’s starting quarterbacks — Nick Mullens, Kwadra Griggs and Jack Abraham — each missed significant time as USM entered this crucial period of the season.
Abraham is healthy headed into Saturday’s noon game at Rice, but injuries at running back are threatening to derail the USM offense after senior De’Michael Harris and redshirt junior Kevin Perkins were sidelined during Saturday’s 45-30 loss at Louisiana Tech.
The path to the championship got a lot tougher with the loss at Tech, and it’s no easier with players like Harris and Perkins hobbled. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the Golden Eagles could win the C-USA West, but they are in need of help and can’t afford a single setback over the next six weeks.
The five-game stretch begins with Rice, which is winless despite showing some improvement over last year’s 2-10 campaign. The Owls took La. Tech (6-1, 3-0) to overtime in a 23-20 game — one of four losses by eight or fewer points, joining Army, UTSA and an undefeated Baylor.
USM (4-3, 2-1) has to put together a five-game win streak and it needs Louisiana Tech, which now holds the head-to-head edge, to lose a pair of games.
Considering the chaotic history of Conference USA football, it’s a fair bet that the Bulldogs will lose a a game or two before the season comes to a close. A three-game stretch in November could prove problematic for the Bulldogs: A Nov. 9 home game against North Texas, a quick turnaround for a Friday night road game at Marshall on Nov. 15 and a Nov. 23 trip to UAB.
If La. Tech beats UAB and survives that three-game stretch with one loss, the Bulldogs will likely be playing on Dec. 7 in the C-USA title game, and possibly hosting in Ruston.
Western Kentucky sits atop the East at 5-2 and 4-0, but the division appears up for grabs with Marshall and FAU still in the hunt. WKU’s trip to Marshall on Saturday will have a big say as to who comes out on top after the Thundering Herd beat FAU 36-31 in Boca Raton last week.
While USM has mostly survived an injury to starting running back Trivenskey Mosley in the season opener, it will be much more difficult for the Golden Eagles to beat good teams without Harris in the backfield. It gets even harder if Perkins, who missed significant time in the second half of Saturday’s game, is slowed by his own injury.
Harris took a hard hit to the upper body during the second quarter of the game at Louisiana Tech. He slowly walked off the field and trainers quickly removed his pads in an obvious sign that his day had come to an end.
It’s unclear what Perkins’ injury might be, but the USM offense was especially ineffective when he left the game.
Running game issues
The hard-charging Perkins and Harris, a former track star, have worked well as a one-two punch, giving life to a ground game that struggled to produce consistent yardage in 2018.
There’s a good chance Perkins, who has 264 yards on 61 carries, will be on the field Saturday, but there’s no running back on the roster remotely as explosive as Harris.
Just last week, USM offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner made an argument that Harris could be the team’s MVP. He offers a big-play threat at running back that USM has lacked since Ito Smith wrapped up his eligibility after the 2017 season.
“He’s got good numbers, but he’s also helped the other guys,” Faulkner said. “It’s hard to double-team guys. It’s hard to cloud coverage certain guys and he’s a big reason why because we can do so many different things with him.”
Harris recorded four touchdowns over the last three games — a 100-yard kickoff return, a 74-yard reception on a screen pass, a 60-yard run up the middle and a 59-yard scamper on a screen pass. Harris, who sat out the season opener, has 693 all-purpose yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns.
If the opposing defense doesn’t have to account for the speedy Harris as a rushing and receiving threat, that puts more pressure on Abraham and the entire offense. USM will likely survive without Harris against Rice, but it will be much tougher against remaining opponents like UAB, WKU and FAU.
The status of Mosley remains a question while a pair of redshirt sophomore reserves, Darius Maberry and Steven Anderson, don’t appear to be fully healthy.
The USM offensive line also appears to be a point of concern after taking a slight step back against Louisiana Tech, paving the way for just 110 rushing yards and allowing steady pressure on Abraham.
USM’s issues can be quickly remedied by a strong offensive showing at Rice and the return of either Mosley or Harris for the Nov. 9 home game against UAB after the bye week. Also, USM has to show it can protect Abraham and revive a struggling secondary on defense.
With five games remaining, Hopson and company have a thin line to walk and much to prove.