HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi football coach Jay Hopson liked quite a bit of what he saw Saturday in his team's 34-7 victory over the University of Texas-El Paso at Sun Bowl Stadium.
But Hopson also acknowledged that the Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) still have some serious work to do to get where they want to be, and that the heavy lifting continues when Rice visits Roberts Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday for a C-USA contest.
"It's always good to get a win," Hopson said Monday during his weekly news conference. "Certainly, a good win and a good start, and you always want to get off to a good start, but we know we have a long season ahead. We have seven, other tough conference games ahead, so we have to let that one get behind us and move on to Rice because it's the only game right now. Definitely, a good start, but we now we have a big challenge this weekend."
Rice (0-4, 0-2) opened the season with a conference loss to Western Kentucky before dropping non-conference games to Army and Baylor.
The Owls came closest to their first victory of the season last weekend before dropping a 42-35 C-USA decision to North Texas in double overtime.
Hopson said the Golden Eagles needed to be wary.
"They've played everybody tough and they are a team that lost in overtime last week and played Baylor strong," he said. "It's a team that we understand we have to ready to play. We know they are a good football team. They're talented. The quarterback makes plays. It's conference play, and you know any time you play in conference, whether it's on the road or at home, it is going to be a 60-minute war. That's the reality of playing in conference. We have to be ready. We have our plate full and gotta be ready to go."
Hopson said USM played cleaner offensively Saturday against the Miners than it had a week earlier, when three turnovers and other mistakes led directly to 27 points by Troy University in the Trojans' 37-31 victory.
"We just made fewer mistakes," Hopson said. "The Troy game was kind of a comedy of mistakes and a ton of turnovers. We tackled better this week. I thought we were crisper offensively and overall it was just a better executed game."
USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said the Golden Eagles have plenty of room for improvement.
"We definitely made more plays this game and took better care of the ball for the most part this game, but obviously, we played about a quarter-and-a-half of good football," Dawson said.
Stat of the week
The Miners converted just 1 of 11 third downs into first downs Saturday, as the Golden Eagles limited them to 258 total yards while shutting them out over the final three quarters.
On the season, USM has allowed only 8-of-50 third-down conversions (16 percent), which ranks second nationally among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
"To me, that is the money down," USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. "So, every week, that is a huge point of emphasis. It really is. We practice that every day. If you win that down, there's a good chance you give the ball back to the offense, so we emphasize that a lot."
Players of the Week
Offense: Junior running back Ito Smith, who logged his fourth, consecutive 100-yard game rushing, piling up 108 yards on 16 carries. He also grabbed four passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Smith, who has rushed for 540 yards this season, ranks third nationally in total yardage and fourth in yards-rushing-per-game,
Defense: Junior Curtis Mikell, who picked off the first two passes of his career, tying a school record by returning the second 100 yards for a touchdown. The return tied the mark set by Kendrick Presley against Memphis in 2011 and he became the first Golden Eagle with two picks in a game since Marquese Wheaton turned the trick against Southern Methodist University in 2011.
Mikell, USM's extra cover man in dime packages, also finished with three tackles.
Special Teams: Sophomore Parker Shaunfield, who made both of his field goal attempts and all four extra point tries.
Shaunfield hit field goals of 34 yards and 46 yards against the Miners, improving to 6 of 6 on field goal attempts this season. Half of his field goal have come from 40-plus yards.
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