The teams: Southern Mississippi (4-3, 2-1) vs Marshall (2-5. 1-2)
Game time: Saturday, Oct. 29th, 6pm, CT
Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Series: Marshall 6-5
Last Meeting: 2015, Marshall 31-10
Odds: Southern Miss -10, o/u 67
Television: American Sports Network
Two outstanding quarterbacks will showcase their skills this Saturday as Nick Mullens of Southern Mississippi leads a potent Golden Eagle attack against Marshall University and its sophomore star Chase Litton.
Mullens needs just 136 more passing yards to break Austin Davis' all-time yardage record and also become the first USM quarterback to pass for more than 11,000 yards in a career.
Litton is on a similar path at Marshall where he has averaged 259 passing yards per game and still has over two years of eligibility remaining.
But there's more to winning football games than the air battle between quarterbacks, so let's take a look at which teams have advantages in other key elements.
After winning 10 games in three straight years, Marshall was expected to be a contender for the East Division, Conference USA crown. Instead, the Thundering Herd stands just 2-5 and next to the last in East Division standings.
The Thundering Herd’s only wins have been over Morgan State, a bottom-half FCS team, and Florida Atlantic, a team that currently stands 123rd on AC Index's (aciventura.com) list of 128 FBS teams.
It's easy to feel the frustration of Marshall fans. They were expecting another challenge for the CUSA title but instead, they suffered last week’s loss to Charlotte, a team that was 1-15 in it’s previous 16 games against FBS opponents.
Southern Mississippi has not fared as well as expected either. Even with the return of All Conference USA quarterback Nick Mullens and a solid group of returning starters, a ten win season seemed likely.
Instead, Southern Mississippi stands 4-3 and fans still agonize over the unexpected and stinging 55-32 loss to CUSA rival UTSA on October 6th.
The good news for the Golden Eagles is that they stand 2-1 in conference play and, if they win-out, they will win the West Division of CUSA. That task won't be easy because USM must reverse last year's 31-10 loss to Marshall, and win back-to-back games against resurgent North Texas and Louisiana Tech in the final two regular season games.
Southern Miss offense vs Marshall defense
Southern Mississippi scores an average of 35.9 ppg which is 29th among FBS' 128 teams.
The Golden Eagles are most effective through the air as Mullens is passing for nearly 300 ypg while the rushing attack gets 195 ypg with Ito Smith ranking among the nation's elite running backs. Although Mullens has thrown eight interceptions, three of those came in the first half of USM's first game.
Marshall's demise can be traced to a defense that has failed to find replacements for seven departed starters which includes three coverage players who transferred out of the program and a safety who was dismissed from the team on August 28th.
Currently, the Herd ranks 99th against the run and 100th against the pass.
On September 17th, Marshall hosted Akron, a team ranked 82nd at that time. Herd fans were stunned as they watched the Zips put up an astounding 65 points.
Last year, Marshall allowed just 17.8 ppg but in 2016, that number has more than doubled (36.1).
Marshall has been effective in getting to opposing quarterbacks but its secondary has been unable to cover receivers. When your top interceptor is a freshman, it is likely that you need some secondary help.
Southern Mississippi has a strong interior line and will protect Mullens long enough for receivers to take advantage of the Herd's suspect secondary. And, if Marshall couldn't keep Charlotte's Kalif Phillips from getting 123 rushing yards, then it seems unlikely it will prevent USM's Smith from getting even more.
Advantage: Southern Mississippi
Marshall offense vs Southern Miss defense
In the preseason, the Thundering Herd was bullish with optimism for its offense based on the return of quarterback Chase Litton and four offensive lineman to protect him. As a freshman, the 6'6” gunslinger passed for a mile and a half of yardage with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Last week against Charlotte, the Herd could manage only 88 net yards on the ground but Litton connected for 32/46 for 262 yards. He currently ranks 35th among the nation's quarterbacks.
It will be interesting to see if Marshall coach John “Doc” Holliday will rely on his strong passing attack to challenge USM's 12th-ranked passing defense or if the Herd will find some success with its anemic rushing attack against the Golden Eagles' middle-of-the-road rush defense.
The three teams that have beaten Southern Miss this season all found success running the ball directly into the undersized center of USM's defensive front. That might not be as easy this week because Draper Riley is expected to return and he adds 300 pounds of beef that has been sorely missing.
As coach Jay Hopson said, “You get another 300-pounder inside. He's getting healthier and healthier. He probably wasn't 100 percent at LSU but probably 85-90 but hopefully we have him at 100 percent this week, so that's big.”
Southern Mississippi's pass defense is higher-ranked than Marshall's passing offense and USM's rushing defense is higher-ranked than Marshall's rushing offense.
Advantage: Southern Mississippi
Marshall has a decided advantage in turnover margin as the Herd stands +.14 which enough to rank 48th.
Southern Mississippi has been plagued with turnovers all season and stands 120th in the FBS with a -1.14 margin.
No new injuries of consequence have been reported for either team.
With Riley returning from injury to plug USM’s lightweight defensive line, Southern Miss gains from the injury report.
Advantage: Southern Mississippi
Last year's game
Marshall had no problem putting Southern Miss away last year.
However, much of that win was less about Marshall’s superior play than USM’s awful second half. In seven second half possessions, the Golden Eagles turned the ball over seven times either via interceptions, fumbles, or failure to convert downs.
With USM’s reckless ball-handling, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Marshall win again this year.
After a harsh loss to LSU in their previous game, coach Hopson makes it clear that Southern Mississippi players have not lost heart. He said, “The reality is, we're playing hard. We have have a lot left. This is that month-long stretch right now with conference games. It's a big month for us and our guys worked hard this week.”
And why not? The Golden Eagles see that the path to a second-straight Conference USA championship game is entirely in their control. If they win-out, they get in.
Winning-out begins Saturday against Marshall, a team with pride and tradition and one of only three in America that has won 10 games in each of the past three seasons.
Turnovers will be the issue. If Southern Mississippi continues to give the ball away, Marshall will win this game.
However, I don’t believe Marshall's defense will pressure USM enough to cause enough turnovers to produce an upset.
Mullens is one of the top-rated long ball passers in America and Marshall has no one to keep Allenzae Staggers from getting loose to the flags. I expect Mullens to get to 300 yards passing and Ito Smith to exceed 125 yards on the ground.
According to AC Index’ (aciventura.com) preseason assessments, Marshall would have been a seven point favorite. However, the Index now has Southern Miss favored by twelve.
I don’t see this as a good matchup nor a good part of the season for Marshall to come up against Southern Mississippi, so I am going to go with . . .
Southern Mississippi 43, Marshall 20