Before this football season started, Golden Eagle fans were looking forward to building off of last year’s success after reaching a bowl game and going 9-5 in their 2015 campaign. But over the course of several months, several variables played a role into why the improvement did not come to fruition.
Former coach Todd Monken took the offensive coordinator position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, senior quarterback Nick Mullens went down with a concussion against Charlotte and missed two straight contests and the new coaching staff has taken time to jell together and produce results after starting the season 4-1 with their first SEC win since 2000.
“You search for answers,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “At some point, you can’t stray too far from the plan — you have to stay the course. The worse thing you can do is panic and do stuff that’s going to really throw you off.”
Fingers can point in any direction, including the coaching staff; Keon Howard, a true freshman starting at quarterback amassing nine turnovers in his first two career games in place of Mullens or a myriad of things. There are also subtle things like the absence of senior receiver D.J. Thompson, who has not played in a game since Oct. 29 against Marshall.
“That’s just part of this game,” said Head Coach Jay Hopson. “Anytime you have [injuries], it’s the next guy up. Some years, it hits you harder than other years. You got to hit the road and go out and recruit. That’s part of the journey, too.”
Howard has been a bright spot though for Southern Miss. Although he has that many turnovers in just a short period of time, he’s averaging 182.5 passing yards a game and 69 rushing yards a game as well. Stepping in for a former C-USA Offensive Player of the Year is difficult for anyone, especially a freshman. But, Dawson believes he has the tools to build on in what others may see as disappointing.
“I thought he played well both games,” Dawson said. “There’s things to learn from. We talked about ball security, but that’s going to be a continuous deal. Overall, there are certain situations and certain deals that he’s going to learn from. Overall, the kid plays hard — he’s playing, he’s battling, you’re working through some rookie mistakes [and] that’s just natural. Talented kid, he just needs some guys around him to step up and help him out a little bit.”
It helps that he has the support of his play-caller, but the “Rivalry in Dixie” resumes this week as Louisiana Tech comes into town after a C-USA West Division crown matchup where the Bulldogs were bashed 58-24 in Ruston, La last year. As they are looking for revenge, the Golden Eagles are looking for answers.
“The mindset going into this game is to get a win,” said senior punter Tyler Sarrazin. “End your season on a good note. Start building for next year.”
La. Tech will not be an easy task as the Bulldogs are 8-3 and have already clinched the C-USA West Division — and USM is not taking them lightly even as this may be a game that counts for nothing but bowl eligibility for Southern Miss.
“Extremely athletic,” Dawson said. “Get extremely elaborate on third downs. They’re going to bring a lot of third-down pressure. When people get into third and long situations against them, they’re not very successful.”
The mindset is totally different from last year. The Golden Eagles had every goal in front of them. Now, they’re trying to stop the proverbial bleeding after dropping five of their last six games.
“Coming off that season into this season, expectations were high,” Sarrazin said. “Some things fell the way that we wouldn’t want but at the end of the day, you got to look at who you are as a person and as a player. I can honestly say I’ve seen everyone still fighting.”
So here they are with their season on the line against their rival in La. Tech. All of the chips are on the table.
For the Golden Eagles, it’s time to cash in.