Southern Miss

Southern Miss seeks end to SEC drought at Kentucky

Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens has a chance to lead the Golden Eagles to their first win over an SEC opponent since 2000.
Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens has a chance to lead the Golden Eagles to their first win over an SEC opponent since 2000. ttisbell@sunherald.com

The last time Southern Miss beat an Southeastern Conference opponent was Sept. 16, 2000.

It was a 21-0 win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a game that USM fans still consider one of the more proud moments in program history.

Since that date, USM is a total of 0-13 against the SEC, the preeminent conference in college football.

At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Golden Eagles likely have one of their best opportunities to knock off an SEC opponent in a couple of decades.

Southern Miss, coming off a 9-5 season, travels to take on a Kentucky team that has won a total of four SEC games in three seasons under head coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats are 12-24 overall during that stretch, growing accustomed to hot starts and late fades.

Southern Miss has one of the nation's better senior quarterbacks in Nick Mullens while Kentucky hopes that sophomore quarterback Drew Barker can step forward at a position that's been problematic under Stoops.

Mullens is a fourth-year starter who threw for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year. Barker appeared in five games last season, completing 50 percent of his passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Advantage: Southern Miss.

Kentucky will likely rely on a pair of solid running backs in junior Stanley Williams and senior Jojo Kemp. Williams averaged 7.5 yards a carry for 855 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. Kemp accounted for 555 yards and six scores on 98 carries.

USM will rely on junior running back Ito Smith, who had a breakout sophomore season with 171 carries for 1,128 yards and two scores. He also caught 49 passes for 515 yards and three touchdowns.

Battle up front

The key match-up of the game will likely be a Southern Miss defensive line, which is already feeling the impact of injuries to start the season, against a huge Kentucky offensive line that doesn't have one man under 300 pounds on the two-deep depth chart.

USM's biggest defensive tackle, Draper Riley, was expected to start the opener, but the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder is sidelined by an injury. That means 6-foot-1, 265-pound Dylan Bradley and 6-foot-3, 275-pound Jerry McCorvey will be tasked with manning the two defensive tackle spots for USM.

McCorvey, a Vancleave native and a converted defensive end, was promoted to first string with Riley's injury.

“That’s just the next guy up. That’s football,” first-year USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “If someone gets injured, that’s what you do. In football, the next guy has to step up. That’s just the way it is and that’s how it is always going to be. There’s always going to be an injury in football here or there. It’s just the next guy's time up and that’s the way we have to look at it.”

Redshirt junior Rod Crayton (6-1, 287) and sophomore LaDarius Harris (6-1, 280) will also factor heavily into the rotation at defensive tackle at rotation against Kentucky. Hopson mentioned 6-foot, 295-pound redshirt freshman Jauan Collins, a former Pascagoula star, and 6-foot-2, 264-pound true freshman DeMarrio Smith as players likely to see time.

“Some of those young guys are going to have to play and that's just the reality of it,” Hopson said.

While USM is a popular pick for some on Saturday, it will walk into Lexington as an underdog. The Las Vegas odds makers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite.

"We've got an outstanding challenge,” Hopson said this week. “Anytime you open up the season with an SEC opponent, you have your hands full. Kentucky is a well-coached football team with outstanding football players. We know we've got to be ready this week.”

Game plan

Who: Southern Miss vs. Kentucky

When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Lexington, Kentucky

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 104.9 FM

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