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Has Southern Miss Football Gotten Any Better in 2014?

Has Southern Miss Football Gotten Any Better in 2014?

It’s been two years since Ellis Johnson salted the turf in Hattiesburg. In that time, the Southern Miss football program has won four games and lost 30. This past Saturday, after taking a 14-0 lead during a badass ten minutes of first quarter football1, undefeated Marshall outscored the Golden Eagles 63-3, and had quarterback Rakeem Cato throwing deep even in the fourth quarter, as they vainly tried to make him a Heisman candidate.

Southern Miss has won three games this year, and three is certainly better than one, as in 2013, or zero, as in 2012, but this is a program that once looked at a New Orleans Bowl berth as the kind of thing that happened after a bad year. Is there really any difference between a three-win losing season and a one-win losing season, especially when two of the three wins came against FCS opponent Alcorn State (by six points) and just-transitioned-to-FBS Appalachian State (by one point)? Is Coach Todd Monken’s program actually making progress? Are things getting any better?

If you believe statistics measure anything at all, the answer is yes.

The First Glimpses of Todd Monken’s Offense

USM-Bama-preview
(via the Student Printz)

The position of Oklahoma State offensive coordinator puts you on a fast-track to an FBS head coaching job. And say what you want about the mixed reviews of Dana Holgorsen and Larry Fedora so far — the one thing both guys consistently produce is explosive offense. The offenses Todd Monken put together for Mike Gundy2 were among OSU’s best, outproducing even Fedora’s version of the thing.

Monken’s offense was horrible in 2013. It scored 14 against North Texas, 7 against Florida Atlantic, 15 against Texas State, and so on. Its lone outburst — Southern Miss’s season-ending win over UAB — resulted in 62 points, but those points came assisted by 5 UAB turnovers. Southern Miss won that game, thank everything, but the fashion in which it won was as much UAB’s doing as the Golden Eagles’.

In 2013 CUSA play, Southern Miss scored 21 points per game, a number that falls to 15 without the UAB game. They averaged just 323 yards — 252 passing, 71 rushing.

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See also: The Great Southern Miss Logo Debate

Watching Southern Miss in 2013 was a reminder that there were probably legitimate reasons to explain why the NCAA once didn’t allow freshmen to play.

After predictable stompings under the boots of Mississippi State and Alabama, and after a pair of iffy, conservative gameplans resulted in too-close wins that revealed Southern Miss couldn’t yet rely on physical superiority against the likes of Alcorn and Appalachian State, Monken’s offense seemed only marginally improved. Sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens was more accurate and, sporadically, effective than he had been as a true freshman in 2013, but an inexperienced offensive line was limiting him and left the Golden Eagles without a running game.

There were good signs as early as the Alabama game, though — Bama sacked Mullens, who had spent all of his 2013 starts and most of the first two games of 2014 being pummeled, just once. The Southern Miss offense muddled its way through the Appalachian State and Rice games, but suddenly things began to click. Against Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss exceeded 500 yards of offense for the first time since 2011, and the next week against North Texas the Golden Eagles did it again.

Then Mullens injured his foot early in the game against Louisiana Tech, and the fragile offensive dynamic Monken had finally put together fell apart. Still, even with the offense struggling under gutsy but limited walkon backup quarterback Cole Weeks, it has improved in every category over 2013.

Below are the numbers from CUSA play in 2013 vs so far in 2014.

Points Passing Yards Rushing Yards Total Yards
2013 20.88 251.75 71 322.75
2014 22.5 302.67 89 391.67

The improvement is far more drastic when the 2014 conference numbers are isolated to games Mullens quarterbacked. In fact, by the time Mullens was hurt, Southern Miss’s offense was pretty good.

Below are Mullens’s numbers in CUSA play vs Weeks’s.

Points Passing Yards Rushing Yards Total Yards
With Mullens 28 338 117.33 455.33
With Weeks 17 267.33 60.67 328

On offense, Southern Miss’s progress has been slow, but it’s real. It’s not unreasonable for Golden Eagle fans to believe that, had Mullens not gotten hurt against Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss would be playing for bowl eligibility over its final two weeks. Even if the Golden Eagles wouldn’t have beaten Louisiana Tech with Mullens — a very arguable point — they almost certainly would have beaten UTEP the next week. Southern Miss held UTEP to a single touchdown that was unassisted by some spectacular turnover. Cole Weeks turnovers were responsible for 21 of UTEP’s 35 points, and a kickoff return was responsible for seven more.

With two games left, including tonight’s matchup with Texas-San Antonio, and with Mullens potentially available to play, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Southern Miss to finish the year with four or five wins, which would definitively answer the question of whether the program has made progress.

But What About the Defense?

USM-1web1
(via the Student Printz)

The numbers are more mixed for the Southern Miss defense. The improvement on that side of the ball is muddled by inconsistency and lack of depth. For example, the Golden Eagle defensive line, led by NFL prospect Rakeem Nunez-Roches, does things like dominate for a half, or for three quarters, only to be gashed late. There’s quite a difference in bulk between the likes of starter Nunez-Roches and, say, lean second-unit defensive tackle Wil Freeman.

Still, the Southern Miss defense has improved in plenty of areas:

Points Alllowed Completion % Rushing Yards
2013 41.9 66 215.5
2014 33.5 63.6 205.6

It’s not good, but it’s been worse.

And again, the problem is consistency. The Golden Eagles rarely stopped high-powered Marshall, for example, but they made the Herd work for their points for much of the game. Marshall’s lead back in the contest, Remi Watson, had just 49 yards on 17 carries. Later, though, other Herd backs slashed through a tiring defense for too-easy big plays, like Steward Butler’s 83 yarder in the fourth quarter.

For the Southern Miss defense in 2014, the story too often has been satisfyingly solid play followed by a handful of late breakdowns. One minute, an opponent is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. The next, they’ve got 335 rushing yards at a nine yard clip.

The solution is improved depth, and developing that’ll take more time.

The Bottom Line

Southern Miss is better, and still improving. Without Mullens’s injury, the Golden Eagles might even have made themselves bowl eligible this year, though at this point that’s less important than general progress.

Next year, expectations will be a thing, and a bowl berth will be both possible and necessary.

Author

Bradley Warshauer

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