Southern Miss

What will Southern Miss and only the 2008 Oklahoma team have in common?

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Southern Miss running back Jalen Richard runs for a first down against Old Dominion on Nov. 21 in Hattiesburg, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Southern Miss running back Jalen Richard runs for a first down against Old Dominion on Nov. 21 in Hattiesburg, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. SUN HERALD

The Southern Miss offense is set to enter rare territory Saturday when the Golden Eagles travel to Western Kentucky for the Conference USA title game.

USM junior quarterback Nick Mullens is just 36 yards shy of 4,000 yards passing and sophomore running back Ito Smith needs only 17 yards to join senior Jalen Richard as a 1,000-yard rusher.

Barring injury, Mullens and Smith should easily hit those marks and make USM only the second team to have a 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

The other team to accomplish that was the 2008 Oklahoma squad. The quarterback was Sam Bradford (4,720) and the two running backs were Chris Brown (1,220) and DeMarco Murray (1,002).

Bradford won the Heisman Trophy that season and the Sooners finished 12-2, losing to Florida in the national title game.

USM will hope to maintain its balanced offense when it takes on WKU (10-2) at 11 a.m. on Saturday in Bowling Green, Ky.

While it comes as no great surprise that Mullens is drawing close to a 4,000-yard campaign in his third year as a starter, USM's rushing numbers are stunning.

The Golden Eagles (9-3) have already doubled their rushing yardage from a year ago. USM has rushed for 2,336 yards this season after accounting for only 1,149 yards last year.

USM head coach Todd Monken handed over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey before the season started and the two men have worked together to fashion one of the nation's most prolific offenses.

When reminded of his team's dramatic progress running the football, Monken said he believes last year's figures are deceiving.

"People don't remember that Jalen Richard missed the first half of the season last year and we didn't have any tight ends," Monken said. "Ito Smith was a true freshman. Tez Parks was a freshman and George Payne was in and out, banged up.

"This year, we have three good running backs with (Michigan transfer) Justice Hayes added into the mix. Also, we've been winning. If we weren't as good on offense, we wouldn't be rushing as much. We've been running the ball at the end of games. In a bunch of games we've added 80-100 yards just from the product of being ahead. All those things lend to being better."

With Richard and Smith both putting up big numbers, USM averaged 194.7 yards a game on the ground this season to rank first in Conference USA.

USM's rushing attack is the main reason it eclipsed Western Kentucky late in the season as C-USA's most productive offense in terms of yardage. The Eagles have an average of 534.8 yards compared to WKU's 520.1.

Against a WKU team that features one of the nation's top senior quarterbacks in Brandon Doughty, the Eagles' ground game could provide the difference on the road. WKU has been more than adequate running the ball this season with an average of 158.4 yards a game, but USM should have an edge in that area.

If Smith hits the 1,000-yard mark Saturday, USM will have two players rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season for the first time since legendary quarterback Reggie Collier and former star running back Sammy Winder did it in 1981.

Richard has rushed 177 times for 1,065 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith has 140 carries for 983 yards and seven scores.

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