Patrick Magee

Southern Miss offense has to find its way at UTEP

Southern Miss receiver D. J. Thompson balances the ball on his body, thinking he made a circus catch Saturday against Troy in Hattiesburg. After a replay, referees ruled the ball hit the ground.
Southern Miss receiver D. J. Thompson balances the ball on his body, thinking he made a circus catch Saturday against Troy in Hattiesburg. After a replay, referees ruled the ball hit the ground. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Saturday's 37-31 loss to Troy could prove to be the reality check that Southern Miss needs, or it could be the sign of a flawed football team.

How USM plays at 7 p.m. on Saturday at UTEP in the Conference USA opener will tell us a great deal.

The good news for first-year head coach Jay Hopson and his team is that there's no doubt that they can play much better than they did Saturday night. The only instance where the Golden Eagles have played up to their potential this season was the second half at Kentucky in a 44-35 win.

USM has been slow out of the gate in all three games this season, even sputtering a little on offense in the first quarter of the 56-0 victory over Savannah State.

On Saturday against Troy, the offense and special teams both had especially bad nights. The defense was often put in bad spots due to three turnovers and mistakes on special teams.

Passing issues

Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens has thrown six interceptions through three games after throwing 12 all last season. Five of those interceptions have come in the first half.

The senior is on pace to top his career high in interceptions of 14, which came in his freshman season behind a bad offensive line.

He threw for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. This year, he has completed 58 percent of his passes for 737 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions.

Mullens has looked at times like the quarterback he was a year ago, but those moments have been fleeting. He's thrown some passes he shouldn't have and some of his passes didn't look very sharp on Saturday.

It's easy to point the finger at the quarterback when the passing game isn't going according to plan, but there are obviously larger issues to resolve.

A year ago, Mullens could rely on Mike Thomas and Casey Martin. Thomas, who is now with the Los Angel Rams, was the big play threat while Martin was the dependable target over the middle.

You take those two out of the equation and it can leave a bit of a vacuum.

Path forward

While Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers have been nice additions to the receiving corps, there's no clear go-to guy for Mullens. He's spreading the ball around and seven players have six receptions or more.

Mullens admitted Saturday that the chemistry just isn't there yet in the passing game.

“I have to be more accurate throwing the ball,” he said. “I’m a big believer in chemistry so I try and throw to those guys as much as I can. The more game reps we get the better we’ll be. That’s something you just pick up on the run and that’s something we’ll continue to improve on and I really focus on during the week. I have to be able to trust those guys and they have to be able to trust me.”

USM (2-1) takes on a UTEP team (1-2) that is coming off a humbling 66-14 loss to Army last week. The Miners allowed 426 yards on the ground in that game.

After Troy running back Jordan Chunn ran for 176 yards against USM last week, expect UTEP to feed the ball to its star back, Aaron Jones.

Just like it was in the second-half rally at Kentucky, USM's best answer might be handing the ball off to its two standout running backs, Ito Smith and George Payne.

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