Southern Miss

Southern Miss players keep even keel headed into Marshall game

 Southern Miss running back Ito Smith slices through the North Texas defense Saturday in Hattiesburg. USM travels to Marshall Saturday.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Southern Miss running back Ito Smith slices through the North Texas defense Saturday in Hattiesburg. USM travels to Marshall Saturday. SUN HERALD

HATTIESBURG -- The Southern Miss football team won three of its last four games, matching its best season in the past three years, and play Conference USA defending champion Marshall on Friday night.

So the Golden Eagles (3-2) have a chance at knocking off a team that has been on top of the C-USA hill and they can do it on national television (CBS Sports Network).

But while they admit that the 4-1 Thundering Herd is indeed a fine team, they're trying to stay on an even keel about the importance of Friday's game.

"To me, they're just another team," sophomore safety Picasso Nelson Jr., said. "It doesn't matter who we play. But to beat them would be good. To beat anybody would be good. We just want to win each and every game.

"They'll be good, but that doesn't mean we'll prepare differently from any other week. We're going to prepare the same, give our best at practice and go out there expecting to win."

Southern Miss fans have high hopes that this truly is a breakout season after three years of play where the Eagles have gone 0-12, 1-11 and 3-9. There is so much hope that talk of a bowl game is even on their minds.

That's a goal, but the team isn't going overboard on going public with any kind of expectations.

"We haven't accomplished anything," said running back Justice Hayes, who became the third USM running back to lead the team in rushing this season when he picked up 86 yards in Saturday's 49-14 victory over North Texas.

"We can't get into a bowl game at 3-2. We sure can't win a championship at 3-2. We approach every game the same. With me having experience, I know for a fact that we haven't done anything. I want to help. We want to go to a bowl game. We want to win the conference."

Southern Miss is 1-0 in the West Division of Conference USA. UTSA also is 1-0 in the West, while Louisiana Tech, Rice and UTEP already have one loss and North Texas has two.

In the East Division, Western Kentucky is 2-0 while Marshall, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic are 1-0.

The Golden Eagles will play eight C-USA games, so the players are right in saying it's way to early for serious talk about postseason play.

"Everyone is upset that we're not 5-0," Nelson said. "We're definitely happy that we won three games. We're just trying to get better each and every week. We just want to win."

Hayes knows defeating Marshall won't be as easy as it was to beat North Texas. Marshall has beaten USM four straight times, including 63-17 last season, 61-13 in 2013 and 59-24 in 2012.

"After watching film of them, they're very active and are a great team," Hayes said. "It's a great challenge for us as an offense and as a whole. It's going to be a great matchup. Friday, live television, we're excited."

The good news for Southern Miss is that Marshall does not have quarterback Rakeem Cato any more. After starting for four years, Cato is now playing for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League.

"They're not too complex, honestly," Nelson Jr., said. "They do the same things but they do it well. I guess the biggest change would be the quarterback, he graduated, so that's a big factor for them. You could cover everyone on the field but he would scramble around for so many seconds and find somebody open."

The Thundering Herd will start either Chase Litton, a 6-foot-6 freshman, or Michael Birdsong, a 6-5 junior who missed the past couple of games due to injury, at quarterback.

Game time at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va., is 6 p.m. Friday.