Southern Miss at UTEP
- Start Time: 8:00 PM EST. Saturday, September 24.
- Location: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas
- TV: Campus Insiders
- Streaming: Campus Insiders
- Radio: Southern Miss: Here. UTEP: Here.
- Records: Southern Miss: 2-1. UTEP: 1-2.
- Live Stats: Here.
- Line: Southern Miss -10.5. O/U: 57.
After falling last week to Sun Belt for Troy in a game full of mental and physical blunders, the Golden Eagles have one big question. What is wrong with quarterback Nick Mullens?
The preseason CUSA player of the year has been disappointing so far. He has the numbers, throwing for 245 per game, but is connecting on only 58% of his passes and has six interceptions. He looked lost and confused versus a vicious Troy defense, giving the rest of Conference USA a template for how to handle the USM offense. Time will tell if he kicks this funk, but Mullens has to be much better for Southern Miss to win the conference title.
As bad as Mullens has looked at times, one player that has lived up to all the hype is running back Ito Smith. The junior is averaging 144 on the ground with a 6.8 yards per carry mark. He has the uncanny ability to break a long run when it is most needed, most notably on the first offensive play of the second half versus Troy. Backfield mate George Payne struggled a bit versus Troy, but is still a great thunder to Smith’s lightning. He is a better fit to run against the UTEP defense and could break 100 yards yet again this week.
One of the position groups most anxious to get back out on the field is the offensive line. They struggled versus a better than advertised Troy defense, but never seemed to find their groove with one of those backbreaking drives that great teams pull out of nowhere. Cameron Tom and company are ready to push the Miners front seven around.
If nothing else came out of the loss to Troy, the Golden Eagles faithful got to witness the coming out party of Allenzae Staggers. The JUCO transfer was stunning with his ability to run after the catch and nearly singlehandedly pulled out the win. His catch and run to the nine-yard line with :03 left on the clock was an amazing sight to watch. He, along with fellow JUCO transfer Isaiah Jones, have been the top targets of Mullens. If they can get DJ Thompson, Marquice Richard, Julian Allen, and Tyre’oune Holmes more involved, Mullens should get his groove back.
Normally, a defense would be ripped for giving up 37 points in a loss to a Sun Belt team. Instead, the secondary deserves some praise as they held the Trojans to virtually nothing in the air. Sure, they gave up three passing touchdowns, but much of that is due to play calls that came in too late and mixing up coverages. When the defensive backfield was set and ready, they were able to stonewall the passing game in each of the last 10 quarters.
A 97.7 rushing yards allowed on paper sounds good unless you watched what Jordan Chunn did to them. He was able to go around and through the USM front seven, break tackles and exploding into the secondary on multiple occasions. The Golden Eagles are facing arguably the most talented running back outside of Leonard Fournette on their schedule in Aaron Jones this week. They better be ready.
Last week, the Miners experienced one of the worst beatdowns anyone could imagine in giving up 66 points to Army. They were lost throughout the game and struggled to get anything going on either side of the ball.
Despite only gaining 77 yards versus Army, Aaron Jones is still the CUSA leader in rushing yards. The junior is a special player and the key to everything. When he missed time last season, UTEP went from a bowl team to trash in a matter of minutes. Jones run with a swagger very seldom seen in college running backs. He has a long future in the NFL.
The biggest problem for Jones is the fact that UTEP has virtually no passing game. Fresno State transfer Zack Greenlee has been solid for the most part, but a castoff from a poor Fresno State offense was never going to be the answer. He is only connecting on 54.5% of his passes for only 373 yards on the year. In addition, he has already been hit by the injury bug, missing the Texas game.
To put it in perspective just how poor the UTEP passing game is, only Cole Freytag and Aaron Jones have six or more catches. Only Freytag has more than 100 yards receiving on the year. Tyler Batson has shown some ability to hit the long ball, but he has a catch rate of just over 40%.
While his inclusion this week will not fix all the issues on defense, Alvin Jones is back after nursing an injury last week. Hopefully he can help the Miners, a team giving up 4.9 yards per carry, attempt to slow down the explosive rushing attack of Southern Miss.
Even if they do slow down Ito Smith and company, they still have to find a way to limit damage versus the passing game. The good news is they have looked better versus the pass this season. The bad news is that USM is the most explosive passing attack they have faced so far.
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses in week three. Southern Miss self destructed on too many occasions, but had a chance on the final play of the game to beat Troy. UTEP got demolished in giving up 66 points to Army. Expect a mad Southern Miss squad to show up and prove that they are still contenders for the CUSA crown.
Southern Miss 49, UTEP 19.