Start Time: Saturday, September 16th, 7:00 PM ET
Announcers: David Salesman (play-by-play) and Watson Brown (analyst)
Location: Malone Stadium
Series: Southern Miss leads 3-1
Odds: Southern Miss (-6.5) Total 58.5
Southern Miss Outlook
The Golden Eagles enter this non-conference contest with a record of 1-1 and have been very impressive in their first two games. Head coach Jay Hopson has their defense playing at a really high level right now as they’ve only given up two touchdowns on the season and took an SEC school to the wire in week one at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Kwadra Griggs has given USM some solid quarterback play and this squad is starting to look like a true contender in the C-USA West.
Griggs did not get the start under center in the loss to Kentucky, but he entered the ballgame in the second half and performed very well as the junior tossed for 222 yards and two scores. In his first career start against FCS Southern, the junior college transfer posted over 200 yards passing again with two more scores. He has yet to turn the ball over and is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. He’s been rock solid, but the rushing game has struggled.
Ito Smith entered the year with 3,123 career rushing yards and was expected to have another big year after excelling under Shannon Dawson in his first season as USM’s offensive coordinator. But the senior is off to a slow start after averaging only 3.5 yards per game in the first two games. Look for the Golden Eagles to try to get him going against a very bad ULM run defense. True freshman T’Rod Daniels is emerging playmaker for the offense and has a ton of speed to complement Smith. Look for the diaper dandy get a fair share of touches.
USM has a lot of options at wide receiver as they have a good amount of size at the position. Isaiah Jones, Korey Robertson, and Allenzae Staggers are stand over six-foot-two and provide some match-up problems for opposing secondaries. Freshman Quez Watkins has emerged as a big play threat as he has six receptions for 137 yards in his first two collegiate games.
The defense has been a strength for the team as the Golden Eagles and Hopson’s unit are holding opponents to 2.3 yards per carry. Defensive linemen Rod Crayton and Jacques Turner have been very disruptive combining to collect five tackles for loss. But the strong point of the defense has been on thirds downs. Opponents are only converting first downs at a 12% clip and that’s unbelievably strong. After getting lit up in conference play last season, it appears Hopson has solved a bunch of their issues in year two.
The Warhawks received an unexpected bye last week as their road trip to Tallahassee was canceled at the very final minute due to Hurricane Irma. They’ll enter this clash at 0-1 looking to achieve the first FBS non-conference win in the Matt Viator era.
After coming off the bench in week one, Garrett Smith will get the start this Saturday. The offense ran pretty smoothly with the junior behind center against Memphis as he collected 219 total yards (48 rushing) in 29 total plays. Fumbles were an issue and that must be fixed this week.
Meanwhile, the running game was suppose to be a strong suit for this team going into the year behind an experience offensive line. But the running backs really struggled against Memphis as they combined to log 27 carries for 90 yards. The Warhawks will need more production than that. Having Smith in the backfield full-time will help the running game and look for offensive coordinator Matt Kubik to continue to give Alabama transfer Derrick Gore a ton of touches.
The passing game got going in the second half in week one as the Warhawks had some upperclassmen making plays. Junior Markis McMcray averaged 23 yards per catch and sophomore RJ Turner continues to be a big play threat. Marcus Green is just reliable in the intermediate routes and he’ll still get a bunch of targets from Smith.
ULM had, quite possibly, the worst defense in college football last season and they were gashed once again to start off 2017. Due to a huge rain storm, the Tigers went to the ground early and often against the Warhawks as they gained 319 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per carry. That’s not a good look for the ULM front seven and it’s something that must be ironed out soon.
The secondary wasn’t challenged at due to the weather and they’ll face a tall task as they go up against an Air Raid scheme on Saturday. ULM is heavily dependent on junior college transfer JJ Dallas at corner, but the speed of linebackers Chase Day and David Griffith does help in pass coverage.
This is a very big game for Matt Viator’s program as the middle of the pack in the Sun Belt is wide open and the Warhawks have a legit chance to make a run at six wins and bowl eligibility. ULM hopes they found their quarterback in Garrett Smith and this passing game flashed signs of being much improved in the opener.
Over in Hattiesburg, Southern Miss has played some good football in their first two weeks. That defense appears to be much improved and could be the C-USA’s best. USM has found their quarterback in Kwadra Griggs and that offense will put up yards and points with those experienced skill players. The defense is playing well and they have another game this week where they should have the upper hand.
It’s a big spot for ULM and Viator will have his boys ready to go. However, there is more talent on the USM sideline and I believe they have the schematic advantage. The Southern Miss defense will stop the run and force Garrett Smith to make a lot of plays through the air. Meanwhile, Ito Smith gets going for his first 100-yard game of the year against a soft ULM front seven as the Golden Eagles establish some balance.
Prediction: Southern Miss 34, ULM 26