Southern Miss looking to stay unbeaten on road

Southern Miss looking to stay unbeaten on road

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A sports cliché will tell you to be successful, take care of your business at home and try to win when you can on the road.

For The University of Southern Mississippi football team, that latter opportunity comes Saturday morning.

When the Golden Eagles (4-1, 2-0 Conference USA) will kick off at 11 a.m. with the University of Texas-San Antonio (1-3, 0-1), they will be vying for a third, consecutive road win without a loss this season.

USM coach Jay Hopson said for that to happen, the Golden Eagles cannot afford to take the Roadrunners lightly.

"They're a very talented football team," Hopson said. "Arizona State and Colorado State are games they could have won, and then, they could have won at Old Dominion. We know we have a really good football team we had to prepare for, a talented football team. When you're in conference play, you need to be ready to play each and every week."

Especially facing a foe that had a chance to rest weary legs and put in a bit more preparation during an off week.

With that mix of rest and extra work, USM may need to brace itself to prevent UTSA getting off to a fast start.

But if the Roadrunners have perused the numbers, they are aware that a fast start would be advisable, because the Golden Eagles have been downright stingy in the second half.

Overall, USM ranks 39th in scoring defense among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, allowing just 21.4 points per game.

But the Golden Eagles have been even tougher to score on in the second half, allowing just 34 points in five games over the final two quarters, including three, second-half shutouts.

USM has allowed just 17 points in each of the third and fourth quarters.

"We're settling in," USM junior safety Picasso Nelson said. "We know our job, and it's about doing your assignment and making plays. We are definitely not thinking, but just reacting."

Still, USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said he was not pleased with his unit's play in the second half last week against Rice, when the Golden Eagles' defense allowed 21 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter.

"In the first half, we made plays, made some stands, tackled well," Pecoraro said. "The second half, we didn't execute. We missed some tackles. We didn't execute our assignment. A couple times, we there to make a play and didn't come down with it.

"So, we've got to learn from that and get better."

UTSA has had issues putting points on the board, averaging just more three touchdowns a game.

The third period has proved to be the Roadrunners' most productive, with UTSA scoring 32 points coming out of the locker room after halftime. But UTSA has struggled in the end, scoring just six fourth-quarter points all season.

The Roadrunners also have struggled to run the ball, averaging 96.2 yards a game, though Jarveon Williams rushed for a season-high 93 yards at Old Dominion on Sept. 24.

Quarterback Dalton Sturm has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 782 yards and seven touchdowns, but has completed just more than 50 percent for 436 yards and two touchdowns.

And statistically, USM will be the best defense the Roadrunners have seen this seen.

The Golden Eagles rank 11th in total defense, allowing 272.6 yards a game, thanks in large part to the second-most difficult defense to continue drives against (17.4 percent third-down conversion rate) and an unit that averages 9 ½ tackles for loss per game.

Jay Hopson said while third-down is crucial, success on the preceding downs usually dictate the odds.

"We're going to knock on wood here," Hopson said. "It's always a big down because if you hold there, you give your offense a chance to get back on the field. First and second downs are critical, too, because it's a lot easier on third-and-1 (for an offense) than on third-and-16."

And getting the ball back to a USM offense that roared to life in the second half against Rice last week can be daunting.

After hammering opponents on the ground for three, consecutive weeks, the Golden Eagles took flight, using big plays through the air to set a single-game record with 702 yards total offense.

Quarterback Nick Mullens threw for a school-record 591 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Allenzae Staggers finished with six catches for a single-game mark of 292 yards, including touchdown receptions of 75 yards, 81 yards and 93 yards. Tight end Julian Allen caught three passes for 101 yards, including an 82-yard play.

UTSA has been tough against the pass this season, allowing just an average 180.3 yards passing per game, and Mullens has thrown at least one interception per game and has seven on the season.

But the Roadrunners have allowed an average of 202 yards rushing per game, including 238 yards and three touchdowns against Old Dominion.

Running back Ito Smith saw his four-game streak of 100-yard games rushing come to an end, but the junior still ranks seventh nationally with 617 yards rushing and has scored a touchdown rushing or receiving in each of his last 10 games.

Smith still finished with 141 total yards against Rice, and USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said the big games by Mullens, Allen and Staggers could make Smith even more dangerous.

"I never thought of balance of being fifty-fifty (run-pass)," Dawson said. "I've always thought of balance as spreading the ball to a number of people, where people can't pinpoint whose going to get it or gameplan for. So, the more people we can have stepping up to make plays, the harder it is on the defense."

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