Time and Date: Saturday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Network: Stadium (WatchStadium.com)
Location: Apogee Stadium — Denton, TX
Spread: North Texas (-1.5)
ESPN FPI: North Texas 55.7% chance to win
All-time series: Series tied, 7-7
Last meeting: Southern Miss 45, North Texas 27 — October 12, 2019
Week 3: SMU 65, North Texas 35.
Week 4: Tulane 66, Southern Miss 24.
North Texas (1-1) and Southern Miss (0-3) both allowed uncontrollable scoring rampages in their lasting outing. To make matters worse, both of these obliterations occurred at the C-USA teams’ home stadiums.
Now, it’s redemption week for one of the C-USA West rivals which both aim for their first victory over an FBS opponent this season.
A rocky start in Hattiesburg
In a season with an extreme degree of uncertainty, not many college football programs were expected to part ways with their head coach. But Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson stepped down from his position after one game — an ugly 32-21 upset in Hattiesburg at the hands of South Alabama. Since, wide receivers coach Scotty Walden has assumed interim coach duties. At age 30, he is the youngest acting head coach in the FBS surpassing Kent State’s 34-year old head coach Sean Lewis for that honor.
Walden is a very high-energy coach on the sidelines, and that persona is visible within his program. Despite numerous key players opting out of the season and losing a 4-year head coach, Southern Miss still maintains aggressiveness on both sides of the ball. The fight in the Golden Eagles has remained obvious in the past two weeks, as they jumped out to a 27-10 lead over Louisiana Tech and a 14-0 lead over Tulane.
However, Southern Miss seemingly runs on low fuel in the second halves. The Golden Eagles were outscored 21-3 in a heartbreaking last-minute loss to the Bulldogs and outscored 66-10 by an unstoppable Tulane rushing offense. For the first time this season, Southern Miss will leave its comfort zone and travel on the road, hoping to find better luck in the second half in Denton, TX.
Tulane outgained the Golden Eagles 430-70 on the ground last week, averaging 8.0 yards per carry and punching in seven touchdowns on the defense. Southern Miss currently has the fourth worst rushing defense in college football, a unit which prepares to battle a North Texas offense which ranks fifth in the country in rushing yards (286 yards per game).
While Southern Miss struggles plugging the gaps in the running game, the Golden Eagles have viable pieces in the secondary to stop Seth Littrell’s passing attack at North Texas. Free safety Ky’el Hemby, the team’s leading tackler in 2019, has recorded 24 tackles and a forced fumble this season. Cornerback Eric Scott Jr., a junior college transfer in his first season at the FBS level, is off to fantastic start with one interception and two pass breakups in three games. Southern Miss’ pass defense struggled with South Alabama in the opener but the group has improved each week. The Golden Eagles held Louisiana Tech to 218 yards through the air and 6.2 yards per attempt in Week 3 before limiting Tulane to a 43% completion rate and 142 yards in Week 4.
Offensively, Southern Miss still offers one of the conference’s top signal callers. Preseason All-C-USA quarterback Jack Abraham is a marksman in terms of accuracy. He’s completing nearly 68% of his attempts through three games this season after finishing with completion percentages of 68 and 73 in his first two years as the Golden Eagles’ starter. But Abraham’s greatest issue at the moment is he needs more time in the pocket. Tulane sacked the senior on five separate occasions a week ago and the majority of those sacks transpired in the fourth quarter when the Southern Miss couldn’t stop the bleeding in a scoreless half.
Southern Miss’ leading rusher has 81 yards through three games, which shows how reliant the Golden Eagles are on production from the receiving corps. Tim Jones is one of the top wideouts in the country and the deep threat averages over 21 yards per reception this season with a team-best 299 yards. Junior college transfer Jason Brownlee has fit in nicely to the offense, and the 6’3” wideout enjoyed an 88-yard catch and run touchdown in the first quarter in Hattiesburg last Saturday. For screen passes, expect Abraham to frequently target Demarcus Jones, the corp’s overall leader in receptions in 2020. Southern Miss runs plenty of high-low routes offensively with the two Joneses — Tim and Demarcus, so North Texas’ secondary can’t leave Abraham either option or Southern Miss can catch fire in the passing game.
Mean Green back from quarantine
North Texas was slated to play its third game of the season last Saturday, but the matchup against Houston was canceled due to four players testing positive for COVID-19 and contact tracing resulting from the positive tests.
The makeshift bye week means it exactly two weeks will pass between the Mean Green’s 65-35 loss to SMU and their ensuing C-USA battle with Southern Miss. And exactly one month from Saturday marks the date of North Texas’ 2020 opener — a 57-31 win over FCS program Houston Baptist. Not playing in consecutive weeks this season has made it hard for Seth Littrell’s program to gain a sense of momentum, but the Mean Green are well rested and have been allotted extra time to prepare for the Golden Eagles.
As preseason C-USA favorites in 2019, North Texas’ 106th ranked scoring defense interfered with the Mean Green’s lofty goals and the team finished 4-8. This season, the unit also hasn’t been spectacular, allowing 31 points to an FCS team and 65 to SMU with both outings at home in Apogee Stadium.
Out of all teams that have played multiple games, only Texas Tech allows more points per contest than the Mean Green. With 72 FBS teams taking the field so far in September, North Texas owns the 68th ranked passing defense and 62nd ranked rushing defense in yards per game. SMU registered over 340 yards on both fronts in Week 3, but luckily, the Mean Green won’t face an offense as dynamic and lethal as Sonny Dykes’ squad again this season.
Southern Miss hasn’t been able to establish a pass rush yet with three sacks on the season, and North Texas is currently in the same boat averaging just one sack per contest. The Mean Green may be without one of their top blitzers, outside linebacker Tyreke Davis, who missed the SMU game in Week 3 due to undisclosed medical reasons. North Texas will hope not only to return Tyreke Davis for the Southern Miss game, but also starting linebacker K.D. Davis who also was sidelined for the previous matchup.
If neither Davis is in the linebacking corps Saturday, it is up to Kevin Wood to boost the rest of the unit. The sophomore outside linebacker led the roster against SMU with 12 tackles and he holds a team-high 2.5 tackles in the backfield this season.
North Texas will utilize two quarterbacks in the upcoming matchup, an ongoing rotation which has existed since the opening week of the season. Jason Bean has started both games for the Mean Green, but fellow redshirt sophomore Austin Aune has provided the closing efforts each time.
The two share similar stat lines this season. Bean has completed 56% of passes on 27 attempts for 246 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. Aune has completed 53% of passes on 36 attempts for 387 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Both quarterbacks have run the ball nine times with one rushing touchdown on the season.
SMU was clearly a step up from North Texas’ level, while Houston Baptist was a notch down, so Southern Miss will be the perfect opponent for Littrell to evaluate both quarterbacks and determine which one is best suited to be the future of the program.
Both quarterbacks have the satisfaction of running an offense with wide receiver Jaelon Darden. Second all-time in North Texas history for receiving touchdowns, Darden is in sole possession of first place on the overall leaderboard this season with five touchdown receptions. Through two games, he has 10 receptions and 137 yards — meaning half of his catches have been converted into six points.
North Texas will also look to exploit Southern Miss’ struggling run defense. With a deep running back group, the Mean Green have equally split attempts between the old guard and the new. The more senior member of the backfield is DeAndre Torrey, a standout halfback in 2018 with 977 and 15 touchdowns. But Torrey’s legs are remaining fresh due to the blistering production of redshirt freshman Oscar Adaway III. Of running backs with 25 attempts this season, Adaway boasts the second-highest rushing average with 8.9 yards per carry. North Texas must replicate the run blocking the Green Wave asserted on Southern Miss last week, and either Adaway or Torrey will be destined for an explosive performance.
Vegas favors the hosting Mean Green by just 1.5-points, so this one is expected to play out as a close finish.
Both defenses are fresh off abysmal performances of allowing over 570 yards and 65 points, so expect the offenses to engage in a shootout in Denton. Southern Miss will likely outproduce the Mean Green in the aerial game, due to the Golden Eagles’ tendency to wholly ditch the run in favor of screen passes. But the advantage in the rushing department will almost certainly belong to DeAndre Torrey, Oscar Adaway III, and the Mean Green. North Texas may not unload 470 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the Golden Eagles, but the running backs are fully capable of taking over this game with a steady dose of 6-10 yard carries to wear out the opposing front seven.
With North Texas fresh off an unplanned bye week and Southern Miss traveling for the first time this season, expect the Mean Green to win their first C-USA game of the season. Since both teams joined the C-USA, six of seven matchups in this series have resulted in a double-digit victory and that tradition will continue Saturday.
Prediction: North Texas 44, Southern Miss 31