Tough road game ahead; USM facing division foe

By ALAN HINTON,

Preseason predictions had North Texas, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech to be the top three football teams in Conference USA’s West Division.

Last week, Southern Miss (4-2 overall, 2-0 C-USA) handled North Texas 45-27 to sweep aside one of its primary rivals.

This Saturday (2:30 p.m., Ruston, La.), the Golden Eagles will hit the road to take on the other, Louisiana Tech.

And while Southern Miss played well against North Texas, it must do the same this week, for the Bulldogs are 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference. Louisiana Tech’s only loss came to Texas in the season opener. Since then, it has reeled off wins over Grambling State, Bowling Green, FIU, Rice and Massachusetts.

“They're very similar to what you see every year,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “They're a well-coached, good football team. There is no secret to the success they've had. They have always been a good team in this conference.

“Coach (Skip) Holtz and his staff do a great job. We know we're playing a good football team, there's no doubt about it.”

Tech is led by quarterback J’Mar Smith, a former Meridian High School star who is starting for the third straight season. Smith is connecting on 63.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for an average of 259.5 yards per game.

And that’s not all.

“This guy can run,” USM defensive coordinator Tim Billings said. “They spread you out. I’ve noticed multiple fronts, multiple coverage, they’re big and fast.”

Tech’s main running back is Justin Henderson (79.7 yard average) and the top two receivers are Cee Jay Powell and Adrian Hardy. Tech’s punter is Brady Farlow of Purvis.

Hopson liked the play of his offense and defense against North Texas.

“I felt like we won the offensive and defensive phase, but didn't feel like we did in special teams,” Hopson said. “We'll address that for sure.”

Southern Miss junior quarterback Jack Abraham continues to play well. He completed 29 of 36 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, against North Texas and was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week. Abraham is averaging 322.7 passing yards per game

Five Golden Eagle receivers have stood out this season: Jaylond Adams (32 receptions for 365 yards), Tim Jones (23 receptions for 275 yards), Jordan Mitchell (22 catches for 369 yards), Quez Watkins (20 catches for 528 yards) and running back De’Michael Harris (14 receptions for 227 yards).

Harris also leads the team in rushing with 53 carries for 279 yards.

“I've really felt like we've run the ball when we have needed to,” Hopson said. “There have been a couple of games where we've run it pretty good. (The offensive line is) doing a great job and there's continuity there. I just think those guys have played well all season and I haven't had any issues (with them). They block well, they protect well, and De'Michael is really finding his niche in there.”

Southern Miss nose tackle Eriq Kitchen said the good start this season helps motivate the team.

“It’s always important to get a conference win,” he said. “It’s a confidence thing. Every week we get better, smarter, more comfortable.”

Saturday’s game will be televised by the NFL Network.