HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - Though situated only about 100 miles from one another, the University of Southern Mississippi and University of South Alabama never have squared off on the football field.
That’s expected to change Thursday night, when the Jaguars visit M.M. Roberts Stadium at 8 p.m., and the stage couldn’t be bigger … or more discombobulated.
Thursday’s game originally was scheduled for Saturday, but thanks to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the two-day shift, the USA-USM inaugural football meeting has become the opening Football Bowl Subdivision game of the 2020 season.
The game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
“I think people across the country want to watch some college football, so we will do our best to put a good product out on the field,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “It’s been an interesting spring and summer, and I’m just excited to get the season started.”
But the virus has had other effects.
Neither team has been able to adhere to a “normal” football calendar, with both seeing spring practices cancelled and summer workouts amended by safety measures to minimize the virus’ potential.
Those measures will extend to the stands as well Thursday, where only 25 percent of the seats will be open for occupation.
“We’ve just been talking about bringing our own energy,” USM senior rover Ky’el Hemby said. “Whether we’re playing in front of 100,000 people or 1,000 people, it shouldn’t matter.
“This (kind of opportunity) doesn’t come around a lot. There’re going to be a lot of eyes on us. Being the first FBS game, that’s big. Everybody wants football, and we’re opening it up. We couldn’t be more blessed than that.”
The Jaguars, who didn’t start playing FBS football until 2012, finished 2-10 in 2019 and have never won more than six games in a season.
USM is coming off a 7-6 season that ended with a loss to Tulane University in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Both teams return their starting quarterbacks.
Sophomore Desmond Trotter, the grandson of National Football League Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, started the Jaguars final four games. He had four touchdown passes when USA ambushed Arkansas State University in the 2019 season finale.
“The thing with him is his mobility,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “He does a good job throwing on the run.”
USM welcomes back Jack Abraham for his third year as starting quarterback, who became just the third Golden Eagle to top 3,000 yards passing in a season.
One of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation the past two years, Abraham also has displayed a penchant for turnovers at times.
Some have come off deflections, others in obvious passing situations, but nonetheless, over the same period, Abraham has thrown 34 touchdown passes to 25 interceptions.
But with first-year offensive coordinator Matt Kubik brought in to help fix 2019′s troubled running game and an experienced line returning, the Golden Eagles are expecting a more balanced approach.
“We’ve put in a lot of work so far, and now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning,” Abraham said. “We’re all excited. What a great opportunity for us, this first game of the season.”