Southern Miss will get a second chance for redeeming itself on national television.
This time it will feature interim head coach Scotty Walden at the helm for his first game in a conference opener against Louisiana Tech on ESPN 2.
“We are really excited to get into game week,” Walden said. “Our guys are hungry working on the field. We are really anxious to get this taste out of our mouths from last week. We are moved on from that, but it’s hard when you have a loss and go on a bye week.
“I’m excited to see where this headed. I’m anxious to get out there and see what this looks like.”
Louisiana Tech was forced to cancel its first game of the season against Baylor after 38 players tested positive for COVID-19. Despite the outbreak, Walden says that the cases were staggered and that both teams will be set to play.
“I believe a lot of their cases were staggered, meaning that a lot of those cases of those happened the week before,” Walden said. “The majority of those guys are back already from my understanding. At the end of the day, It’s about us, not about them. We are going to prepare to play. We nipped that in the bud early. When that report first came out, I addressed the team and told our guys that there would be a game, and we are going to play.
“We are going to play this game unless it gets to a point to where they say they can’t play. I don’t get that indication at all, and I don’t feel that way. I think we are playing, and I would be shocked if we didn’t.”
After coming off a 10-3 season, Louisiana Tech finds itself having to replace nine starters on its defense and three-year starting quarterback J’Mar Smith.
The Bulldogs have had three different quarterbacks compete for the job this past offseason. Westin Elliot competed for the job against Smith back in 2017 but mostly practiced with the third-string players.
The main competition looks to be between redshirt sophomore Aaron Allen and graduate transfer Luke Anthony. Last season, Anthony played for Abilene Christian where he threw for 2,525 yards and 17 touchdowns. Allen served as the Bulldogs’ backup quarterback last year. Allen played in six games and threw 446 yards and three touchdowns.
“Much of the same is what you try to anticipate because the head coach is back, and he’s an offensive guy,” Defensive Coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “Just from my history of coaching against LA Tech, their offensive line is always their strong point, and one of the better offensive lines in the conference.
“Really, the only thing that you can do (to prepare for the quarterback) is take a peek at all three and what their individual styles are,” Pecoraro said. “I think all three are relatively similar. One is probably a little more athletic than the others, but they all throw the football pretty well. Offensively, I don’t know how much different they will truly be.”
Despite the change at quarterback, Louisiana Tech returns an experienced offensive line and running back Justin Henderson. Henderson rushed for 1,062 yards and totaled 17 touchdowns last season.
“He is hard to tackle, he runs very powerful and has deceiving speed,” Pecoraro said. “They are a solid team. The tough part is that you don’t know who the quarterback is going to be and they have some holes on the offensive line but they have some transfers. There is some uncertainty there as well.”
Defensively, the Golden Eagles face the challenge of the unknown as Louisiana Tech not only features brand new personnel but a new defensive coordinator, David Blackwell. Blackwell served as Old Dominion’s coordinator last season, where his defense allowed 371.1 yards per game to rank fourth in C-USA. According to Southern Miss offensive coordinator Matt Kubik, the team studied Old Dominion’s defense in preparation.
“We did a big study on Old Dominion this summer,” Kubik said. “We were hoping to take that study and then compare it to their first game against Baylor, and obviously that didn’t happen. We are kind of relying on what we saw over the summer and what they did at ODU. We went back and watched some old tape on Louisiana Tech too. They have a bunch of new starters, but some guys did get some time. We have to stay with our base plan and need to be able to adjust. We are not 100 percent sure whether they will be an odd or even front. They have kind of showed a little bit of both.”
The two main returning starters are on the Bulldogs’ defensive line, which are Willie Baker and Milton Williams, who combined for 110 tackles and 19 tackles for loss.
“The returners Willie Baker and Milton Williams, the two defensive linemen up front, are guys that we are going to have to keep an eye on,” Kubik said. “A couple of those guys on the back end I recruited.
“They have a lot of talented players on the back end, but they just don’t have that experience.”
Southern Miss will kick off against Louisiana Tech at 6:30 p.m.