HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss opponents ripped the Golden Eagle defense throughout parts of the first four games of the football season.
USM’s three FBS opponents reeled off 610 yards of offense (Nebraska), 591 (Texas State) and 550 (Mississippi State). That’s an average of 583.6 yards per game.
Even throwing in FCS opponent Austin Peay, which totaled only 189 yards of offense against USM, the average yards allowed in the first four games was 485.
Those four opponents averaged 31.5 points per game against Southern Miss.
So when the Golden Eagles defeated North Texas 49-14 Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium in the Eagles’ first Conference USA game of the season, the defense had reason to gloat after holding North Texas scoreless through three quarters.
“You give up 14 points, you’re going to win,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. “The defense did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone. If you play well in the red zone and make them kick field goals or at least attempts or you get turnovers down there, you are going to be good on defense and we did that when we needed to.”
They did that literally for the first three quarters. After three quarters, USM led 35-0.
“You don’t have to worry what the situation is,” Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens said about playing with such a lead, praising the defense. “They were awesome. They did a great job.”
North Texas finished the game with 185 yards rushing and 201 passing for 386 total.
But the Mean Green was only 5 of 17 on third-down conversions and 2 of 4 on fourth-down conversions.
USM had five sacks — two by defensive end Ja’Boree Poole, 1.5 by tackle Michael Smith, one by bandit Dylan Bradley and one-half by end Darian Yancey.
The Eagles totaled nine tackles for loss.
“We were sure we could take advantage on third-and-long,” Smith said.
That they did.
“We got them in third downs and blitzed,” Monken said. “We came from a lot of angles.
“I thought we were more aggressive. Their quarterback was a pocket guy and it’s easier to bring pressure against that.”
Monken actually praised the North Texas offense, saying that it is “close” to putting it all together.
“Our defense had to understand that they were going to make some plays,” he said.
North Texas started the game well, running 12 plays before missing a 42-yard field goal. But the first sack of the game, by Poole, seemed to unify the USM defense.
“My job is to go in on third down and rush the passer,” Poole said. “I feel like any time I am put in on third down, I am going to get the sack.”
Monken said there were no major changes made on defense after North Texas drove downfield early.
“We didn’t do anything really different,” he said. “A couple of those (running backs) are pretty good players. Early in the year they didn’t have those guys. They’re close. So that’s why our defense had to understand that they were going to make some plays, they have against everybody in their first three games. They just haven’t been able to finish it.”
Field position helped the Southern Miss defense, no doubt. The first six times North Texas took possession of the ball, its best starting field position was at the Mean Green 26-yard line. They also started at the 13, 1, 25, 4 and 16 early in the game, when Southern Miss took charge.
But also, USM (3-2, 1-0 C-USA) stopped three North Texas drives with quarterback sacks, halted one with an interception by Cornell Armstrong in the end zone and held the Mean Green on fourth down a couple of times.
North Texas (0-4, 0-2) did not score until 14:45 remained in the game, when quarterback Andrew McNulty connected with receiver Carlos Harris on a 23-yard touchdown pass, then scored again with 4:03 left in the game.
But the game had been pretty much over by that time.