Location: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
Kickoff: 11:00 a.m. CST
Radio: Ticket 760 (UTSA)
Television: American Sports Network
Online Stream: American Sports Network
Live Stats: GoUTSA.com
Series History: Tied 1-1. Southern Miss won the last meeting 32-10.
Vegas Line: USM -16.5, O/U 55.5
Fresh off a bye week, the UTSA Roadrunners will host the division-leading Southern Miss Golden Eagles for an early kick off in the Alamodome. It will be the third meeting in the series with both teams claiming a win over each other. UTSA slipped past USM at home in 2014 despite failing to reach the end zone as four field goals were enough to give the Roadrunners a 12-10 victory. The Golden Eagles would roar back last season to bludgeon quarterback Dalton Sturm and the rest of the Roadrunner offense in a 32-10 game that was nowhere near as close as the score depicted.
Southern Miss Outlook
Despite the departure of head coach Todd Monken and the graduation of several key players, Southern Miss has hardly missed a beat in their fight for another C-USA championship. All-conference quarterback Nick Mullens returns to spearhead an explosive offense that has put gaudy numbers on scoreboards across the South.
The Golden Eagles’ new head coach Jay Hopson and his staff have wisely chosen to keep the offensive and defensive schemes the team utilized last season in tact, leading to a smooth transition for both players and coaches.
Southern Miss started their season with a bang, orchestrating a massive comeback victory on the road against Kentucky. The Wildcats sped out to a 35-10 halftime lead but still lost to the Golden Eagles 44-35. I think it’s safe to say that no deficit is too large for USM to climb out of this season.
After countering Kentucky with a swift jab to the chin, Southern Miss went on to routinely dismantle Savannah State 56-0. The next week was a bit of a shock at the time as Southern Miss lost to Troy 31-37. Despite Troy keeping it within one score with Clemson the week before, few expected the Trojans to be able to hang with USM. Troy has since proved their status as a Sun Belt title contender, making the loss a little bit easier to swallow.
The Golden Eagles have started conference play on a winning streak after beating down consecutive Texas teams. USM rocked a struggling UTEP 34-7 before scorching Rice’s secondary to a crisp in a 44-28 blow out. Mullens passed for five hundred and ninety one yards as the Golden Eagles likely placed the final nail in David Bailiff’s coffin at Rice.
USM will seek to complete their Texas three-step with a spin and a curtsy against UTSA this week. Besides veteran signal caller Nick Mullens, Southern Miss also boasts one of the most explosive running backs in C-USA in Ito Smith. The junior has posted 617 yards on the ground this season while finding the end zone five times. Smith does have a penchant for coughing up the football though as he’s put the ball on the turf three times this season.
Southern Miss is extremely tough up front, led by defensive tackle Dylan Bradley and defensive end Xavier Thigpin. Bradley is undersized at 6’1”, 285 but he’s extremely quick off the ball and tough to block due to his aggressive motor. Bradley has already racked up 26 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, a pass break up, and a forced fumble this season. Thigpin hasn’t posted the eye-popping stats that Bradley has but Thigpin is just as disruptive. Look for him to be a major factor in the pass rush.
After getting out to a 1-3 start to the season, UTSA is hoping to hit the field rejuvenated by a bye week break. The Roadrunners haven’t made many changes to the depth chart following their week off but the offense will welcome the return of 6’3”, 225 pound wideout Dannon Cavil. An Oklahoma transfer, Cavil impressed in the spring with his large frame and ability to fight for balls. Whether it comes from Cavil or not, UTSA’s offense needs to find a spark as they’re struggling to put points on the board. The Roadrunners are averaging just 20 points per game against FBS competition as UTSA has struggled to run the ball.
Despite a talented backfield of Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes, UTSA is ranked 121 out of 128 in rushing S&P+. Rhodes is averaging a solid 4.3 yards per carry but he hasn’t been able to convert those 4-5 yard runs into explosive plays worth more than just a first down. For a program seeking to establish a run-first identity, the UTSA offensive line has to do a much better job of paving the way for the running backs. The Old Dominion loss did show a beam of hope as UTSA dominated the Monarchs in the trenches after back up guard Kyle McKinney entered the game for an injured Juan Perez-Isidoro. It will be interesting to watch if UTSA will utilize that same offensive front again of Jevonte Domond, Kyle McKinney, Austin Pratt, Reed Darragh, and Gabe Casillas.
UTSA’s greatest challenge on offense will be containing the Southern Miss pass rush. The UTSA offensive line has given up 16 sacks this year through four games while the Southern Miss defense has generated 16 sacks of their own on the season. It’s crucial that the UTSA offensive line puts a hat on Dylan Bradley on every snap.
Outside of the Old Dominion game (449 yards allowed) UTSA’s defense has played pretty strongly this season. They’ll face their biggest challenge yet against Southern Miss and their top 20 offense this week. While Nick Mullens, D.J. Thompson, and Allonzae Staggers have the Golden Eagles’ offense in flight through the passing game, the Roadrunners will have to bottle Ito Smith (617 yards, 5 TDs, 6.2 yards per carry) first to stop the USM offense from running all over the Alamodome turf.
Southern Miss will also boast a huge advantage on special teams. While the Roadrunners have struggled in just converting extra points this season, USM has yet to miss a single place kick. Punter and team captain Tyler Sarrazin has been outright lethal this season, averaging 43.9 yards on his 19 punt attempts while pinning the offense within the 25 yard line on six punts. Returners have called for a fair catch on eight of Sarrazin’s punts.
What to watch for
Turnovers make losers out of winners, often when least expected.
UTSA is ranked 106th in turnover margin while Southern Mississippi is ranked 114th. Neither seems likely to hang onto the ball well and the intriguing allure of uncertainty is as tasty as San Antonio’s chicken tomatillo enchiladas at Nicha’s.
If Saturday’s game goes like last year, Southern Miss will have four turnovers and UTSA will have two.
2) Quarterback play
Through USM's first five games, Nick Mullens has passed for 1504 yards and ranks 15th nationally. He has completed 106 passes although it must be said that seven of those have been to the wrong team.
Mullens started last year’s game by lofting a perfect 47-yard touchdown pass and, in less time than it takes for the concessionaire to say “Larry Culpepper here”, the Golden Eagles were up 7-0.
Mullens finished the game 23-31 for 343 yards, two touchdowns and---yes—-he had interceptions. Three of them.
UTSA's Dalton Sturm has 782 total yards with seven touchdowns, or about one-half of Mullens’ stats. Sturm currently ranks 88th in passing yardage but he ranks first as the fastest-talking quarterback in America.
Advantage: Southern Miss with apologies to Dalton Sturm
3) Slow starts
Remember September 3rd? Kentucky blitzed its way to a 35-10 first-half lead and USM had to rally for 34 straight points to win the game. Indeed it was exciting, but is that any way for a conference contender to behave?
How about two weeks ago when Troy only needed the first 10 minutes to boost a 10 point lead?
And just last week, it took nearly the entire first half for USM to finally take the lead from winless Rice.
Earlier this week, coach Hopson talked about the problem. “I thought we had a chance to get off to a fast start. Unfortunately, we had the turnover right off the get-go. We were driving the ball and it was a nice run; nice play. It could’ve been bang-bang; two scores on two possessions. But the reality was that we had only scored three points at the end of the first quarter.”
While the Golden Eagles were falling all over themselves last week, UTSA stayed within one possession of Old Dominion until near the end.
Southern Mississippi has done well after intermission, often running wild and piling up impressive numbers. But, it’s risky business for the Golden Eagles to continue to fall behind and expect second half tantrums to save them.
And, don’t think UTSA isn’t capable. The Roadrunners started the season by kicking the ball off to their opponent and just nine seconds later—-just nine seconds into this season—-UTSA had the ball back and was in the end zone.
It’s a perilous dare for Southern Miss to risk a slow start against a Roadrunner team that has shown it can capitalize.
4) Rushing the football
It is amazing that UTSA ranks as high as 63rd in passing yardage when it has no help from its rushing attack. In four games, Roadrunner backs have averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and altogether, they have amassed just 385 yards. That’s for the entire team.
Compare that to Ito Smith of USM who, by himself, has over 600 yards and is the seventh-ranked ball carrier in FBS football.
And, you can add George Payne, USM's second running back, who has nearly as much yardage (317) as all of UTSA’s rushers.
Even so, there is some history to suggest that those gaudy numbers might not even matter. Last year against the Golden Eagles, UTSA running back Jarveon Williams ran for 88 yards, one of those a helmet-whistling 47 yard breakaway that was the longest run by either team.
And just last week against Old Dominion, Williams ran for another 93 yards and Jalen Rhodes added 68 more, raising the speculation that perhaps UTSA might be just be fixin’ things up.
Advantage: Southern Miss
5) Pass defense
Did you know that UTSA's pass defense is ranked 20th in the nation? That is an impressive fact because it is succeeding despite the team as a whole being ranked 62nd defensively and 99th against the run.
For comparison, Southern Mississippi’s pass defense is ranked eighth in the nation.
The task for UTSA will be bigger than ever this Saturday because Mullens is an all conference quarterback who was named to three watch lists before the season started. You can also add break-out receiver Allenzae Staggers to the mix and keep in mind that Staggers scores a touchdown every 3.4 times he catches to ball.
Advantage: Southern Miss
Comments about the coaches
We featured Hopson and Southern Miss on aciventura.com. We spoke of hardships he has faced, the grit he has shown, and how he is a man of optimism and class.
Last Saturday’s game against Rice offered a good example of that. Southern Miss led Rice 44-28 and had some individual performers who were on the verge of breaking some passing records. Instead of going for those, Hopson chose to run out the clock.
Last Monday, a reporter asked Hopson if he had thought at all about going for those records against winless Rice and he responded, “No. I learned some time ago that we’re not going to try to throw it for a stat. When the game is over, you take the knee and win the game. It’s about the team. It’s not about an extra yard here or there. You need to end the game with class. That’s the reality of sportsmanship.”
UTSA players see their coach as a man with great character also. They call coach Wilson the hardest working coach they’ve seen and one that “has his hands on everything”.
What they appreciate just as much is Wilson’s ability to keep things in perspective and deal with things in the right timing—like how it is okay to celebrate on Saturday as long as you face the facts on Sunday.
Wilson learned those things from a long football career that began as an award winning running back at Nicholls State, Nike National Coach of the Year finalist in 2002, the Director of Athletics for the New Orleans Public School System, running backs coach at Ole Miss, receivers coach at Tennessee, assistant coach at Southern Miss, and 2011 National Recruiter of the Year at LSU.
Two teams with two resourceful and dedicated coaches make Southern Mississippi and UTSA teams with bright futures.
Jared: Even if UTSA comes out and plays their best game of the season they’ll likely stil lose to USM. The Golden Eagles are much too talented in the areas where UTSA struggles. It’s hard to imagine UTSA winning in the trenches against Southern Miss. Let’s just hope the 11 am kick off has USM sleep walking through the early quarters so that the game stays competitive. USM 38 UTSA 22
Bobby: Although I believe USM could score over 50 points, I also believe that once the game has been won, Hopson will “take a knee”. AC Index (aciventura.com) is predicting that Southern Mississippi will win and I believe that the Index’s margin of victory is as good as any: Southern Miss 39, UTSA 10