When the University of Southern Mississippi has been good during the 2016 football season, it has been very, very good.
But in what turned out to be quite the up-and-down fall, when the Golden Eagles have been bad, they have been maddeningly frustrating.
So, the question becomes, which USM team will the country see when the Golden Eagles (6-6) take on the University of Louisiana-Lafayette (6-6) at 8 p.m. Saturday in the R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?
“I think the focus is going to be there because we know what we missed out on,” said senior receiver D.J. Thompson, who came back big from injury with 12 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a postseason-clinching win in the regular-season finale with Louisiana Tech University on Nov. 25.
“A lot of us know that this is our last game, people like me and (safety) D’Nerious Antoine, (defensive tackle) Dylan Bradley, (quarterback) Nick Mullens, and all these guys. We need this game. We want to finish strong. I know that if those key guys and few others bring that energy, everybody else will follow.”
That energy was evident in solid conference wins over Tech and Marshall University, in a record-breaking performance against Rice University, in the comeback win to open the season at the University of Kentucky and even in the loss at Louisiana State University where the Golden Eagles played the Tigers to a first-half standstill.
On the flip side were the disappointments against Troy University at home and University of Texas-San Antonio on the road, games where the Golden Eagles turned the ball over and/or gave up big plays to fall behind early and never quite could catch up.
There was a loss to the University of Charlotte, another game of big plays and turnovers that also cost the Golden Eagles the services of Mullens for the next two games after he suffered a concussion.
Junior cornerback Cornell Armstrong said the Golden Eagles cannot afford slow starts.
“You can’t let people get the jump on you,” Armstrong said. “We battled back, but you just can’t do that. You have to start fast.”
Despite the inconsistencies, the Golden Eagles have limited the opposition to just 330.9 yards total offense, including less than 200 yards passing per game. On offense, USM has averaged 472 yards total offense a game, including nearly 300 yards a game passing.
But 30 turnovers have not only thwarted drives, but given the opposition short fields leading to short scoring drives. And too many times, even when an opponent has been pinned deep in its own territory, the Golden Eagles have surrendered the big play.
That has led to a nearly even result of 51 touchdowns for USM to 47 for opponents. The Golden Eagles have averaged 33.2 points per game; the opposition, 30.2.
But USM coach Jay Hopson said he expects his team to be ready and focused for the Ragin’ Cajuns as the Golden Eagles head to a second consecutive bowl game.
"It's always positive to have the bowl game,” Hopson said “That's always a benefit. That's always a thing you can build on. It's a reward for the players for their hard work and effort they put in.
“(We’re) definitely excited about the bowl game. Our football team is excited about it. They're fired up. It's a game they are looking forward to."