HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens hails from Hoover, Alabama, playing for Spain Park High School just past the hills ringing Birmingham.
So, Mullens is well aware of what he and the Golden Eagles are in for Saturday evening when they welcome Troy University to Roberts Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
"They're the type of program where they always have a good team," Mullens said. "So, I'm excited for the matchup this week. It's going to be a dogfight."
USM (2-0) has an opportunity to start a season with three, consecutive wins for the first time since 2009. But to do so, the Golden Eagles will have to get past a team that USM coach Jay Hopson bears a lot of the same similarities as his.
"I think they've got a lot of guys who play with a chip on their shoulders," Hopson said. "I think that's the same thing with our guys. You want to go out and play that way."
Hopson said he liked what he saw from his Golden Eagles in their approach to last week's 56-0 win over Savannah State, a Football Championship Subdivision program that USM was heavily favored to beat.
Hopson said he expects that same sort of focus Saturday against the Trojans (1-1), who took then-No. 2 Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference down to the wire last week before dropping a 30-24 decision.
"I think our football team understands we have a really good football team coming here Saturday night," Hopson said. "Sometimes when you play an opponent where you're supposed to win, like a Savannah State, you do worry about your players. You want to make sure that they're focused and taking nothing for granted. This week, you don't have to worry about that because every man in that locker room understands that there's a really good football team coming in here Saturday. Top to bottom, they're a good football team. It's going to be a challenge, and it's a game where we have to prepare hard and stay focused."
Led by running backs Johnny Chunn, Josh Anderson and Jabir Frye, the Trojans' ground game ranks 19th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, averaging 262 yards over two games.
All three backs average at least 7.2 yards a carry, with Chunn ranking 32ndh nationally with a 102.5 yards-per-game average. Frye broke a 66-yard touchdown run against the Tigers last week.
The running attack has helped open a passing game that has averaged 226.5 yards a game.
Quarterback Brandon Silvers, a three-year starter, has completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
His top targets include Deondre Douglas (138 yards, two touchdowns, on 18 catches), Emanuel Thompson (89 yards, a touchdown, on 11 catches) and Ismail Saleem (117 yards, a touchdown, on five catches.
All told, the Trojans are tied for 18th nationally in total offense, averaging 546 yards per game.
"It's a team that can attack you from a lot of different angles," Hopson said. "Good running backs, good receivers, good quarterback. They've proven that the last couple weeks."
But Southern Miss' offense has been even more potent.
The Golden Eagles rank eighth in rushing offense (315.5 yards per game) and ninth in total yardage (567.5 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (50 points per game).
Ito Smith ranks sixth nationally, averaging 150.5 yards per game on the ground. He and George Payne have both reached the 100-yard plateau in each of the Golden Eagles' first two games.
The pair gave Southern Miss double, 100-yard rushers in back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
Mullens, a four-year starter, has thrown for five touchdowns and rushed for three more. He has only been sacked three times.
"I just feel like we've gotten better each week, and that's what you want," Mullens said. "You want to be peaking at the right time, for conference play, and I think we're well on our way to that point."
Defensively, Troy has allowed 356 yards per game, ranking 36th nationally against the run (107.5 yards per game). The Trojans have intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble.
Again, Southern Miss has been even stouter. The Golden Eagles established a new Conference USA record for total defense, allowing Savannah State just 41 net yards.
Southern Miss ranks seventh against the run (53.5 yards per game) and eighth in total defense (225 yards per game).
The Golden Eagles have collected nine sacks and teams have converted just 4 of 21 third-down opportunities.
"They've gone out there and played hard," Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. "They've gone out there and executed."
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