Southern Miss

Southern Miss can take big step with win over Miners

 Southern Miss defensive back Kalan Reed signals incomplete after breaking up a pass to UTAS's David Morgan II, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Southern Miss defensive back Kalan Reed signals incomplete after breaking up a pass to UTAS's David Morgan II, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. SUN HERALD

It wasn't that long ago that bowl eligibility was largely taken for granted at Southern Miss.

From 1994-2011, USM met the six-win threshold for a bowl game each season and received a total of 14 bowl bids.

In Saturday's 1:30 p.m. home game Saturday against UTEP, USM (5-3, 3-1 in Conference USA) can become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.

If USM wins today, it's almost certain to lock up a bowl bid thanks to Conference USA's seven bowl tie-ins. A win also keeps USM in a first-place tie atop the C-USA West.

UTEP (3-4, 1-2) is coming off a 27-17 win over Florida Atlantic, but the Miners are a 25-point underdog against the Golden Eagles.

"We owe them one because we didn't play our best game last year offensively down there," Monken said of last year's 35-14 loss at UTEP. "So we will have to be ready and fight like heck to get a victory."

Southern Miss is a very different team than the one UTEP faced last season. Quarterback Nick Mullens missed last year's game due to an injury and his replacement, Cole Weeks, struggled to hit his targets, completing 20-of-46 passes for 309 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

Mullens has begun to receive recognition as one of the better quarterbacks outside of the five power conferences in FBS.

The junior has ranks behind only Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty in passing yardage in C-USA and ranks fifth nationally. Mullens has completed 200-of-315 passes for 2,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Mullens is on pace to break the school's single-season passing yardage mark of 3,496 yards set by Austin Davis in 2011. He could also top the USM single-season mark for passing touchdowns of 30, also held by Davis from 2011.

USM is averaging 35.9 points and 505.8 yards a game.

"Southern Miss, in my opinion, very well could be the best team in Conference USA," UTEP coach Sean Kugler said this week. "They are playing like it in all three phases. They are running the ball extremely well. They are passing the ball extremely well."

While USM is rolling on offense, UTEP has struggled at times on that side of the ball.

The Miners saw an uptick in offensive production last week thanks to the return of quarterback Mack Leftwich, who completed 20-of-39 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns.

UTEP is getting nowhere near the production it's accustomed to in the ground game after Aaron Jones rushed for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. The Miners finished 7-6 with a trip to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in 2014.

Jones suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the second game of the season and the Miners have used a committee approach in his absence. UTEP is averaging 140.4 yards a game on the ground after averaging 207.8 a year ago.

"They lost their running back early on the season, which has been hard on them," Monken said. "It's hard to replace a player that is as good as he is."