The stage is set for Southern Miss. Win, and USM moves on. But lose, and the team waits until next year.
While the Golden Eagles have already secured a berth in bowl game with an 8-3 record, their goal from the onset was to win the conference title. But they have to beat Louisiana Tech on Saturday in order to play in the Conference USA Championship game.
While USM leads the conference in both total yards offensively and total yards allowed defensively, beating La. Tech is far from a certainty. This game will come down to who can win the key match-ups.
Kenneth Dixon vs. Golden Eagle front seven
Dixon is one of the most talented running backs in the country. With over 4,000 yards in his career, he is a proven stud. With 972 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, he is once again dominating. But he can be stopped.
There have only been two games this season when he was held in check, against Louisiana- Lafayette and on Saturday against Texas-El Paso.
What makes Dixon special is he really does not have a weakness and his biggest asset is his vision. He has a great sense for where the hole is and will take advantage of cutback lanes if a defender leaves his assigned gap.
What the Ragin’ Cajuns and Miners were able to do was play fundamentally sound, assignment football. The Golden Eagles will have to do the same in order to slow down Dixon.
It will be up to guys like Brian Anderson, Anthony Swain and D’Nerius Antoine to remain disciplined and stick to their assignments in filling the correct gap. It sounds simple, but football is all about doing your job and not blowing assignments.
Michael Thomas vs. Bryson Abraham
Senior cornerback Bryson Abraham has been the best and most consistent player in the Bulldog secondary this season, leading the team in interceptions with three and passes defended with 16.
What has made USM a C-USA title contender is their explosive nature offensively, led by Nick Mullens and Michael Thomas. Thomas has been downright dominant at times, hauling in 10 touchdowns and 949 yards on the season.
While both Thomas and Abra- ham are both explosive athletes, Thomas holds one distinct advantage: size. Thomas is a 6-feet, 1-inch, 200-pound specimen, who plays much bigger than his size suggests. Thomas is a legitimate, grown man.
Abraham, on the other hand, stands just 5 feet, 9 inches, and weighs only 182 pounds. USM would be smart to take advantage of this size differential, especially with Thomas’ knack for going up and catching the ball in traffic.
Jeff Driskel vs. his demons
Driskel is not your ordinary C- USA quarterback. Driskel was once one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation and signed on to play for the Florida Gators. Many expected him to become the next great quarterback at Florida, following in the footsteps of Tim Tebow and Chris Leake.
However, Driskel struggled during his four-year tenure at Florida and had his worst moments when the pressure was at its highest.
Since arriving at La. Tech, he has been everything the Bulldogs could have hoped for. He has led them all season long, throwing 21 touchdowns with just five interceptions.
But the pressure is on in the game. The winner of this game moves on to the conference championship game, and Driskel is facing the best defense in C-USA, statistically. And the Golden Eagles have harassed opposing quarterbacks all season long, forcing quarterbacks to make bad decisions or take too many sacks.
Driskel may rise to the occasion for La. Tech and take them to the promised land. But maybe he doesn’t. Maybe his demons come back and he reverts back to the guy Gator fans loved to hate for his poor play in big moments.