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Football Entertains Rice at The Rock This Weekend

Sept. 30, 2016

HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson insists he's never sure what is going to work in a particular game until the contest is underway.

But if statistics mean anything, Golden Eagles' running backs Ito Smith and George Payne very well could be even busier than usual Saturday evening.

Southern Miss, which ranks among the top 30 rushing teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, will be facing one of the FCS' more generous defenses against the run when it welcomes Rice to M.M. Roberts Stadium.

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.

Through the season's opening month, the Golden Eagles (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) have averaged 247 yards rushing per game, while the Owls (0-4, 0-2) have given up an average 239 yards per game on the ground.

That could mean a steady diet of Smith and Payne, who already have been quite active to start the season and rank among the top 10 rushers in C-USA.

Smith ranks second in the conference with 540 yards rushing, trailing only UTEP's Aaron Jones' 466 yards. Nationally, Smith ranks third, trailing only Jones and San Diego State Donnel Pumphrey's 599 yards.

Payne ranks seventh among C-USA backs, running for 293 yards. His 6.7-yard-per-carry ranks third in the league, trailing Jones (7.4 yards-per-carry) and Smith (6.8 yards-per-carry).

The duo, which has combined for five rushing touchdowns, has powered a ground game that ranks 17th among the 128 FBS programs. Rice ranks 12th among C-USA's 13 teams against the run and 114th nationally.

"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."

On the flip side, the running game has been the best part of the Owls' offense. Darik Dillard, who has run for 262 yards and two touchdowns, has helped Rice average 171.5 rushing yards a game.

But the Golden Eagles have been stingy against opponents' running game, ranking second in the conference and 28th in the nation by allowing an average of 109.5 yards rushing per game.

Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said Rice's record does not reflect the potential headaches the Owls could create for the Golden Eagles.

"It will be a battle, for sure," Pecoraro said. "Spread offense. Big offensive line. Huge offense line. Good running game.

"The quarterback is a solid football player. He does a good job throwing the ball and running the ball. Five or so of their big plays this year has been the quarterback taking off, so we're going have to do a good job holding it up."

The game can be heard on an affiliate of Southern Miss IMG Sports Network or via the free Southern Miss Golden Eagles Gameday App, available through the Apple Store or Google Play.

The Pat Ferlise Ticket Office will also be open this Saturday from 10 a.m. -- 2:30 p.m., for those individuals wishing to purchase tickets for the game and will then reopen at the Roberts Stadium Box Office at 3 p.m., until halftime of the game.

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