HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi's Ito Smith and George Payne have provided the main engines powering Conference USA's best running attack.
On Saturday evening, the Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) will host one of college football's most generous ground defenses when Rice University (0-4, 0-2) visits Roberts Stadium at 6 p.m.
The Golden Eagles are averaging 247.8 yards a game on the ground, tops among C-USA's 13 teams and 17th among the Football Bowl Subdivision's 128 programs.
Smith, who has cracked the 100-yard rushing plateau in each of USM's first four games, ranks second in C-USA and third nationally with 540 rushing yards.
"I'm just overly impressed with the guy," USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Not only is he great with the ball in his hands, but what makes him great is during the week. That guy puts his work in. As far as me with him, I've just got to find ways to get him the ball…He's our best player."
Payne ranks ninth among C-USA rushers with 293 yards, and his 6.7-yards-per-carry average is just behind Smith's 6.8.
"Just two guys (who) are really good football players and two guys (who) can do some things," Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. "You want to be multiple, but you also want to get guys (who) are your players on the field. Both George and Ito are very talented young men. They can run, they can catch, they can do whatever. It just gives us a little bit more flexibility."
Rice, which is 0-4 for the first time since 2009, has struggled to slow the run against a tough, early schedule that has featured two of the nation's best running games in Baylor and Army.
The Owls rank 12th in C-USA and 114th nationally against the run, allowing an average 239 yards a game.
But Hopson said the Golden Eagles are taking nothing for granted.
"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," he said. "That's the reality of playing in conference. We have to be ready. We have our plate full and gotta be ready to go."
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