Date: Friday, November 25, 2016
Kickoff Time: 3:00 PM CST
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Stadium: M.M. Roberts Stadium
TV: ESPN News
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Series Record: Southern Miss leads 32-15
Last Meeting: 2015, Southern Miss 58-24
Betting Line: La Tech -14
It’s the Bulldogs. It’s the Golden Eagles.
It’s the Rivalry in Dixie.
Southern Miss has dominated the series historically, but the two teams have been fairly even since the renewal of the series in 2010. La Tech has a long way to go to catch up to Southern Miss for the all-time record, but a win in 2016 would make the modern era an even 3-3.
Last year, the Rivalry in Dixie was the western half of a de facto 4-team playoff for the C-USA title alongside the East’s Moonshine Throwdown, with the winners facing off in the C-USA title game.
Southern Miss embarrassed Louisiana Tech on its home turf to secure a chance to take on WKU for the title.
This year, the stakes aren’t quite the same, but they are certainly high. Southern Miss comes into their 2016 senior day with a 5-6 record, meaning they need a win here to reach bowl eligibility. Louisiana Tech may have already clinched the West division title and a chance to play for the crown, but they would be much happier playing the C-USA title game with home field advantage. A win over Southern Miss would guarantee that, but a loss would almost certainly mean traveling to either Bowling Green, Kentucky, or Norfolk, Virginia.
And of course, besides the tangible football implications, it’s a rivalry. They hate each other, and both sides would like nothing more than to ruin the other team’s season. Tech could be the final blow that keeps USM out of a bowl game. USM could prevent Tech from playing the title game at home. USM could also re-energize their fan base with a huge upset win over their C-USA rival. Tech, on the other hand, would love nothing more than to make USM feel the way they did a year ago.
Louisiana Tech is fresh off a much needed bye week after playing 11 straight games. They also come in riding a 7-game winning streak. Southern Miss, however, has lost their last 3.
Louisiana Tech’s offense has made a name for itself in 2016. The Bulldogs boast the nation’s 4th best offense in both passing yards and total yards, which is 1st among Group of 5 teams. They have also scored the 2nd most points of any FBS team (504), only behind Lamar Jackson’s Louisville squad (506). They haven’t been held under 44 points since October 1 and have broken 60 in two of their last three games. They average over 500 yards a game, including over 350 passing yards. Lastly, they take care of the ball. QB Ryan Higgins has only thrown 4 interceptions all year. 2 of those came off tipped passes, a third off a 50/50 deep ball. Only one came off a poor decision, and that was week 2.
The Southern Miss defense that will face this offense has had good days and bad days. Their most recent “good day” was when they only gave up 14 points to Marshall in Southern Miss’s 24-14 win. They also held UTEP to 7. This same defense, however, gave up 51 and 55 to Old Dominion and UTSA, both being games that Southern Miss lost. They average under 200 passing yards allowed, which could help them against the Bulldogs’ potent passing attack. However, they also allow 162 rushing yards, and Tech has started to put more emphasis on running the ball the past few weeks.
The La Tech defense has had its struggles, too. Early in the season, they gave up 59 points to Texas Tech and allowed both MTSU and WKU to mount comebacks after Tech’s offense had built a huge lead. Tech survived WKU by forcing a fumble, but MTSU got the victory. The past few weeks, however, have seen improvements. Tech held Rice scoreless in the 1st half. Then, after giving up 21 to North Texas in the 1st half, they made adjustments and held UNT to only a field goal in the second half. Most recently, they held UTSA to 14 in the 1st half of that game. However, the backups did allow 21 4th quarter points from UTSA that could have made things interesting had Jarred Craft not returned an onside kick for a touchdown.
Southern Miss’s offense currently poses the biggest question of the game, because we don’t currently know who the quarterback will be. Starter Nick Mullens has missed the past two games with an apparent head injury. He is currently listed as questionable for Friday. He has reportedly returned to practice, but a final decision may not be known until right before the game. With Nick Mullens, Southern Miss has a C-USA passing attack and pass defense has been Tech’s biggest struggle, as they allow an average of 265.8 passing yards a game. Since Mullens went down, freshman Keon Howard has been the signal-caller. Southern Miss has of course simplified its passing game for the freshman, and Howard is also more of a scrambler. Throw in the 3rd leading rusher in C-USA Ito Smith (who is 2nd in C-USA in rushing touchdowns), and you have an offense that is more run-oriented than when Mullens plays. But despite their struggles in defending the pass, Tech hasn’t had near as much trouble in stopping the run. The league’s leading rusher Aaron Jones was held under 100 yards by the Bulldog defense. But regardless of who plays quarterback, the Tech defense has averaged just better than 5 sacks/game in its last 5 games, so the USM O-line will have a challenge on its hands. If Keon Howard plays, the question then becomes what will he do when he is hurried? Will he scramble, or will he throw a pass he shouldn’t and get picked off?
Special teams has been both a curse and a blessing for the Bulldogs. Earlier in the season, they had trouble in kick/punt return coverage, highlighted by Kylen Towner of WKU breaking off 2 monster kick returns. Although they’ve tightened that up recently, they’ve now allowed both UTSA and Rice to block and return field goals. Rice blocked a PAT and returned it for a 2-point conversion. UTSA blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown.
On the other side of the coin, Carlos Henderson has returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns, including the opening kickoff against UTSA. As mentioned before, Jarred Craft returned an onside kick for a touchdown. And when given the proper protection, place kicker Jonathan Barnes has a monster leg, highlighted by his career-long 54 yard field goal against WKU. Special teams should be fun.
They often say you can throw out the records in a rivalry game. Emotions can play a huge role, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see things get a bit chippy. Southern Miss will be in desperation mode as they try to qualify for a bowl game. Tech will come in determined to clinch home field advantage and potentially even more determined to avenge last year’s debacle. Could their emotions get the better of them?
Emotions may keep Southern Miss in the game longer than some Bulldog fans would like, and depending on how Skip Holtz plays the 4th quarter, Southern Miss may be able to score a couple of times and start to creep back in this thing. But in the end, no one has been able to stop the Louisiana Tech offense this season and I don’t see that changing. It could be a sloppy start for the Bulldogs as they come in hyped up on the memories of last year, but once they settle down, it could get scary for Southern Miss. If Keon Howard plays, he’ll be rushed into making poor decisions, and Xavier Woods is in the secondary to make him pay. Even if Nick Mullens plays, I have a hard time believing he’ll be 100%.
As long as Louisiana Tech comes in with the right mindset, they’ll be playing in Shreveport on December 3.
La Tech 55, Southern Miss 31