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At Southern Miss, Emotions Range from Uneasy Optimism to Excitement

At Southern Miss, Emotions Range from Uneasy Optimism to Excitement

We stormed out of the Rock even before the referee announced the results of the challenge; we knew what had happened. On their first offensive snap of overtime during a 2006 game against East Carolina, Southern Miss quarterback Jeremy Young lofted a pass into the endzone at all-conference tight end Shawn Nelson, and an East Carolina defensive back came away from the play with the football, and we knew there was no chance of the call being overturned.

My friend and I stopped long enough behind the construction site in the south endzone, which would become an M. M. Roberts Stadium seating expansion before our junior year, to hear the bad news we expected. Southern Miss lost.

Later that year, Southern Miss also lost the Conference USA championship to Houston, in Houston, and our bus ride back to Hattiesburg was miserable. The next season, a bad football team from Rice University had a huge lead over Southern Miss at the Rock, and even the experience of a failed comeback attempt didn’t make me particularly excited.

Losing to Rice was not acceptable.

CelebrateUAB
A crowd greeted the Southern Miss football team when it got back to campus following a 2013 win over UAB — its first win since the Hawaii Bowl after 2011. Via Southern Miss Athletics.

This year, in its home opener, Southern Miss faced in-state FCS opponent Alcorn State. Since my first year on campus, the average score of a game between Southern Miss and an FCS team has been 44-7 Golden Eagles. No FCS team has ever frightened me.

Despite forcing four turnovers, and because of more than one scoring opportunity that resulted in no points, or in three points instead of six, Southern Miss only beat Alcorn State 26-20 in a game that came down to an interception on Alcorn’s final drive of the night. I felt relieved, and a little disgusted. Down below, the team charged into the packed and loud student section; helmets flew; students embraced student-athletes; the band played our fight song.

My sister, who is in her third year at Southern Miss, beamed. Most of the students in the student section, those kids who were so thrilled, had just experienced their first win. The last time the Golden Eagles had won in Hattiesburg, before beating Alcorn, most Southern Miss freshmen were barely even in high school.

I was upset because of a near-loss; these students, and the players on the team that represented them, were thrilled by the experience of their first home win. They were experiencing a certain connection with their team that I, burdened by the weight of high expectations that had arisen from decades of consistent success, never did. They were growing up together.

Two weeks later, when Southern Miss beat new FBS member Appalachian State by blocking an extra point to preserve a late one point lead, I was ecstatic.

One problem with college football1 is the apocalypticism that is corollary to the tribal nature of the thing. Basically: In college football, every week can be the end of the world, but only of your world. The other guys are going to go on, and they’re going to embarrass you.

When I wrote about the relationship between Southern Miss and the Southeastern Conference, I implied this reality, but here it is again: Regardless of who is considered to be on “our level” at a given time, for many Southern Miss fans and alumni, we have a divine2 right to dominion over them, and over other so-called mid-majors, because we have always judged ourselves by the standards of the SEC.

That may be difficult for SEC fans to understand. After all, to them Southern Miss is a scrappy little mid-major. To them, a close win over Alcorn State isn’t something any Golden Eagle should sneer at. It’s not like we’re LSU. And that’s true; obviously we’re not. But years of dominant performances over the likes of Tulane or Memphis or UAB don’t stick in the collective Hattiesburg memory like all those upsets over the likes of Alabama, and that’s why Ellis Johnson arrived in town in 2012 expecting to find a dozen players who could have started for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.

Struggling with an Alcorn or Appalachian State is a kind of near-end of the world blow to the identity of those fans and alumni who have always thought of their school’s football team as being almost-SEC. When East Carolina threw that dagger into the back of the endzone in 2006, or when Rice beat us in 2007, we felt the losses in much the same way an LSU fan might take losing to like Louisiana-Monroe. That’s absurd. It’s insane. It’s an unreasonable expectation to place on ourselves, and reeks of the superiority complexes of the rich athletic programs we don’t want to like.

That’s why those first wins at the Rock this year, as uncomfortably close against should-be inferior competition as they were, are so important for the future of the Southern Miss football program. While old fans complain about what we no longer are, new ones are thrilled about what we could become. Current students are now forming the core of a future fan base that is both appreciative of what came before and of the joys right in front of them. It’s not that their expectations have been lowered; it’s that they can enjoy a victory on its own terms. They are coming into their own without the pain of our inferiority complex.

“There’s nothing like this,” Todd Monken told his players at the end of the 2013 season, in a post-game locker room in Birmingham, after the first Southern Miss win in 23 games. “There is no drug, there is no alcohol, that makes you feel like this.”

That’s a precious high, and right now Southern Miss fans can’t afford to miss out on it when it’s there for them to take. Expect excellence, yes: Excellence is the Southern Miss way. But don’t sneer at what wins we’re capable of now, as we work so hard to escape from our worst place.

And so now comes Rice, the team whose victory over Southern Miss in 2007 might have been a harbinger of dark times that we then averted. Rice is a favorite; Rice is certainly better than Alcorn State and Appalachian State. With the explosive offense/shaky defense combination that seems standard in Conference USA, Rice could score a lot of points against Southern Miss, and the Golden Eagles haven’t yet shown the ability to keep up with that sort of thing.

Their problem is, mainly, an offensive line that sort of defines the phrase “work in progress.” Todd Monken’s Air Raid offense has a fairly straightforward power running component, but with his offensive line unable to consistently open holes, that running game is usually unproductive, despite flashes of awesome from true freshman running backs Ito Smith and Tez Parks and consistency from sophomore George Payne.

That means it usually ends up sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens’ job to generate yards, but Mullens rarely has time to get through his reads; many, many passing attempts are a race between Mullens’ arm and the defensive line barreling down on him. Still, Southern Miss has probably played a bit better at home so far than the tight scores indicate. Against both Alcorn and Appalachian State, the Golden Eagles generated multi-score leads quickly; in both games, though, they often creatively managed to avoid scoring further touchdowns until it was almost too late.

Both games featured iffy offensive interference calls that negated touchdowns and resulted in field goal attempts; against Appalachian State, Southern Miss defensive end Dasman McCullum ripped the ball away from a running back and took off, escorted by a wall of his teammates, into the open field. A touchdown was inevitable, except McCullum, who played an exceptional game, tripped and fell, and the Golden Eagles ended up punting.

Those are the kinds of things Southern Miss now has to change. That’s the next step in their redevelopment: Take advantage of opportunities. The step after that probably depends on recruiting.

This fix hasn’t been quick.

Author

Bradley Warshauer

As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.