Kentucky came into M.M. Roberts Stadium Saturday afternoon and barely escaped with a win. The final scoreboard showed a 24-17 victory, and as the score indicates, it was a close game. There were a couple times where things just didn’t bounce the right way for Southern Miss and each of those are partly responsible for starting the season 0-1.
I promise you that I’m not a Debbie-downer, but we have to look at all the negatives before we can get to the positives. These were the biggest things I noticed Saturday that need fixing:
1. Southern Miss started the wrong quarterback. Everyone I talked to expected Kwadra Griggs to get the start so it was surprising Friday night when Keon Howard was announced as the starter. Howard played the first half and put up only 3 points and just never got the offense moving. Griggs played the entire second half and finished with 222 yards and 2 touchdowns. It might have looked like a completely different game had Griggs started but he has to be the guy moving forward.
2. Field position matters. Too many times Southern Miss was starting their drives deep in their own territory, sometimes at the 1-yard line. When Southern Miss had a chance to pin Kentucky deep in their territory, they opted instead for a fake punt, which did not work.
3. The three lost fumbles hurt. One led directly to a touchdown while another also resulted in points. Ito Smith fumbled late on a shovel pass when Southern Miss was driving to tie the game. I can only hope that these fumbles were just first game jitters and will be worked out moving forward.
4. Penalties were a killer. While the official stat sheet only shows 69 yards worth of penalties, they usually came in crucial points of the game. Late in the 4th quarter while Kentucky was deep in their own territory Southern Miss had a defensive holding call on an incomplete 3rd down pass that extended the drive. Southern Miss started their last possession of the game at their own 4-yard line because of 2 block in the backs and 1 unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a coach. When you are down 7 and have no timeouts left with under 2 minutes remaining you have to be more disciplined than that.
Now let’s look at the things I noticed that give me hope moving forward.
1. Southern Miss found a quarterback that looks like he can run and throw. Some passes were off late in the game but with more reps he should be able to improve in that area. Not to mention Southern Miss had some receivers show tonight that they will catch anything you throw at them. Korey Robertson and Quez Watkins both had big games while Allenzae Staggers didn’t seem to show up much tonight.
2. The 2nd and 3rd string running backs as well as the 3-year starter nickel cornerback were all out today with injuries. Starting left tackle Drake Dorbeck also left after the first quarter and did not return. All those guys are impact makers and their absence was noticeable. Get those guys back in the next few weeks and you will see a team that only gets better.
3. There’s not another team on the schedule with the size and speed of Kentucky for quite a while. The next two games for Southern Miss are Southern University at home and then University of Louisiana-Monroe on the road. Both games are winnable and offer a chance for a team to build confidence moving forward.
4. Clean up the penalties and turnovers. Get injured players back. Let Kwadra Griggs start. This is a team that can compete in Conference-USA. There are a few more weeks until conference play starts to work out the kinks. 1 game down with 11 to go folks, no reason to panic.