Football Continues C-USA Play This Weekend at UTSA
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - Facing a foe that has had a chance to rest weary legs and put in a bit more preparation during an off week, Southern Miss may need to brace itself to avoid a fast start Saturday by UTSA.
And a fast start by the Roadrunners would be advisable, because the Golden Eagles have been downright stingy in the second half.
The Golden Eagles (4-1, 2-0 Conference USA) rank 39th in scoring defense among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, allowing just 21.4 points per game.
But Southern Miss has been even tougher to score on in the second half, allowing just 34 points in five games over the final two quarters, including three shutouts. The Golden Eagles have allowed just 17 points in each of the third and fourth quarters.
"We're settling in," Southern Miss junior safety Picasso Nelson, Jr. said. "We know our job, and it's about doing your assignment and making plays. We are definitely not thinking, but just reacting."
Still, Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said he wasn't pleased with his unit's play in the second half against Rice last week, 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 were there to make a play and didn't come down with it.
"So, we've got to learn from that and get better."
UTSA (1-3, 0-1) has had issues putting points on the board against a schedule that has included Colorado State and Arizona State, averaging just more three touchdowns a game.
The third period has proved to be the Roadrunners' most productive, with UTSA putting up 32 points coming out of the locker room after halftime.
But UTSA has struggled down the stretch, scoring just six fourth-quarter points all season.
The Roadrunners 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, Southern Miss 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.
Southern Miss coach 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 Southern Miss 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 Southern Miss 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."
Game time is set for 11 a.m., from the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and can be seen on the American Sports Network or can be heard on one of the affiliates of the Southern Miss IMG Sports Network.