Coming off its second bye week of the season, Southern Miss heads into the home stretch of the 2019 football season with high confidence and a relatively healthy roster.
The Golden Eagles return to action at 2:30 p.m. Saturday with the first of four November contests as they host UAB in a critical Conference USA game.
“It’s another tough Conference USA opponent,” said head coach Jay Hopson at his Monday press briefing on the USM campus.
“This is a team we certainly respect. They’re very talented and well-coached. It’s another good team we’ve got to prepare for.”
Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1 in C-USA) was victorious in its most recent game before the break, defeating Rice 20-6 at Houston on Oct. 26.
“It was much needed,” defensive coordinator Tim Billings said. “The positive was we played hard and didn’t give up the big plays, and that’s been our Achilles heel. We did a great job on the outside controlling their wide receivers and we did stop the run, which was a big goal of ours.”
Indeed, the Golden Eagles held the Owls to 139 total yards of offense, including a net of just 8 yards on the ground, and recorded eight sacks.
Billings said USM will need more of that kind of effort against UAB (6-2, 3-1). The Blazers will look much the same as they did last year, when they defeated the Golden Eagles 26-23 in overtime in Birmingham to extend their winning streak to three games in the series.
“They were really good last year, and after watching them on film, they’ve got the same quarterback, the same running back (as last year),” Billings said. “The wide receivers may be better than they were last year. They’re very explosive at wide receiver.”
Redshirt junior Austin Watkins Jr. leads a trio of wideouts with at least 25 catches for the Blazers, and at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he poses a matchup problem for the Golden Eagles.
“They’ve got a lot of muscle on the outside,” said USM senior defensive back Ernest Gunn.
“The inside guys are very shifty, where they’ll run a lot of different routes — deep routes, short routes, screens. We’ve just got to use technique to stay over the top and keep everything in front of us, so we don’t give up the big plays.”
Although he was happy with the overall outcome in the win over Rice, offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner remains concerned about the Golden Eagles’ lack of punch in the red zone.
USM made four trips inside the Owls 20-yard-line and only came away with one touchdown. Andrew Stein was two-of-three on field goals the other three times the Golden Eagles got to the red zone.
“It’s something we’ve talked about all year, the red-zone inefficiency,” Faulkner said. “It’s something that we’ve maybe spent too much time talking about. We just have to go and see if we can execute down there.
“But that was probably the biggest disappointment from that game. We had an opportunity to make it a three-score game twice, and we weren’t able to do it.”
Faulkner said UAB will give the Golden Eagles a lot of different looks defensively, especially on the front.
“They do a good job of mixing up their fronts,” Faulkner said. “Week-in, week-out, it’s mostly four-down, but they’ll show some three-man principles. It’ll be a lot of man coverage, which means they’ve got a lot of confidence in their secondary.”
The Blazers lost 30-7 this past Saturday at Tennessee, but 20 of the Volunteers’ points came off turnovers. UAB is allowing just 255.3 yards per game, fifth-best in the nation.
What will help the Golden Eagles is a full return to health by many of those players who have been hobbled in recent weeks.
“We’re getting healthy, and that’s going to help us,” Hopson said. “I’m hoping one or two guys will get back into the mix after the open date. We’ll know a lot more after (Monday).
“You knock on wood, and hope you’re getting as close to full strength as you can be going into the final stretch.”
A healthier running game will certainly benefit the Golden Eagles, as the off week allowed starting running back DeMichael Harris to fully recover from an injury he suffered against Louisiana Tech.
Harris played against Rice, rushing 12 times for 41 yards, but he wasn’t 100 percent. Instead, it was redshirt junior Kevin Perkins who stood out, rushing for 86 yards on 13 carries and scored both Golden Eagle touchdowns.
“It will be DeMichael and Kevin, and we’re hoping to get Steven Anderson a little more work,” said Faulkner. “He’s had two really good weeks of practice. It was a good time for a bye week, to freshen up for the stretch run.”
With four games remaining in the regular season, USM is one win away from bowl eligibility, and after missing out on a bowl game last season, that is in the back of everyone’s minds. But the true focus is elsewhere.
“Everything is on the line,” said Gunn. “I can’t even think about a bowl game. It’s win, win, win and get to the conference championship. A bowl game is second right now in my mind. A conference championship, and we’ve still got a chance at that.”
This will be the 18th meeting between USM and UAB, and the Golden Eagles lead the series 10-7, but the Blazers have won seven of the last eight. Saturday’s game will be televised on the NFL Network.