The UTEP Miners (3-4, 1-2) square off against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-1) in a Conference USA showdown Saturday morning in Hattiesburg, MS.
The Miners enter off a big win over Florida Atlantic last Saturday in El Paso, while the Golden Eagles enter off of back to back impressive wins over both UTSA and Charlotte.
Southern Miss is led by junior quarterback Nick Mullens, who has completed 63.5% of his passes for better than 2,600 yards, 21 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. The one thing Mullens doesn't do, is leave the pocket very often.
Some may consider this an advantage for a defense to face a "one dimensional" quarterback, but in this instance, that certainly isn't the case. This offense is as explosive as they come, and Mullens is just the tip of the iceberg.
Three Golden Eagle rushers have carried the ball more than 35 times, and all average 4.7 yards per carry or better. Senior Jalen Richard leads the ground attack, and has already racked up 681 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries thus far on the season.
But, explosive isn't the only word that describes this offense, perhaps balanced is more well suited to describe it. Four Southern Miss receivers have 29 catches or more, and all have better than 320 yards receiving.
That group is headed by senior wideouts Michael Thomas and Casey Martin. Thomas has already tallied 653 yards and 6 touchdowns on 36 receptions, while Martin has 49 grabs for 500 yards and another 6 touchdowns of his own.
In all, 8 different receivers for the Golden Eagles have had touchdown receptions this year, while 11 have averages of 9.9 yards per catch or better.
Up front, the Golden Eagles are anchored by an experienced offensive line led by 2014 C-USA Honorable Mention Cameron Tom, and 6'6 310 lb fifth year senior Rashad Hill. That unit has helped the Golden Eagles to a top 30 national ranking in yards per carry, while giving up just 1.63 sacks per game.
Opposite that offensive line is a defensive front led by junior defensive end "bandit" Dylan Bradley who has racked up 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Bradley ranks t-25th nationally in both those categories.
The middle of the Golden Eagle defense is led by senior middle linebacker Brian Anderson who has 50 total tackles and 7.5 for loss on the year, and fifth year senior Terrick Wright who has 27 tackles of his own thus far.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the Southern Miss defense though lies in the back four. That unit has picked up 7 interceptions on the year and is ranked 35th nationally giving up just 194.5 yards per contest.
Junior strong safety D'Nerius Antoine leads the group, and the team with 56 total tackles, while also having 5.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 2 forced fumbles. Fellow junior safety Picasso Nelson Jr. ranks fourth on the team in tackles, and sophomore corner Cornell Armstrong has 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups and 7 passes defended.
The fact is that this Southern Miss team is loaded with weapons on both sides of the ball, and it will take more than just a complete team effort to pick up another win in Hattiesburg.
Mack Leftwich, who played well in the win over Southern Miss, will have to take his play up to another level, and he will need plenty of help, not just from his wideouts who let him down with some drops against FAU, but also from his coaching staff and running backs as well.
The Miners showed that they could mix things up against the Owls, and it will take that and more as the play calling will have to be creative to keep this defense off balance and keep this team in the game.
There aren't many areas that the Miners will be able to exploit, but the more balance they are, the better shot they give themselves at staying in this ballgame. If the are forced into being one dimensional offensively, this will turn out to be a very long game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
If the Miners are going to have an opportunity to win this game, it's going to take a fast start. They'll need to find a way to make a play, either a quick or early scoring strike, or a turnover to quickly shift momentum in their favor. If the Golden Eagles are the ones who start quick, much like we saw at FIU, it may just be too hard to keep pace.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE!
We finally saw this team come out on the winning side of a turnover battle this past weekend against FAU. Even with that, the Miners still rank 109th nationally at -0.86 turnovers per game, but the Golden Eagles don't rank much better at 99th so there may be some opportunities there for the taking. And, if they present themselves, the Miners must capitalize!
JUST HAVE FUN!
Perhaps it was coaching. Perhaps it was play calling. Perhaps it was the loss of Aaron Jones. Whatever it was, something took the air of the ball with this football team, but it seemed to be regained a bit last week as the team played with a little bounce in their step in the win over FAU. And when asked, they acknowledged it was much more fun to play that way. They've got to enter this contest with that same attitude and level of confidence. Take care of assignments, and just play the game you've played your whole life! The rest will take care of itself!!
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