Rice game will be measuring stick for Southern Miss

Running Back George Payne runs to the end zone as Southern Miss scores a touchdown against Appalachian State Saturday night. The final score set the Golden Eagles with a victory, 21-20. -Susan Broadbridge
Running Back George Payne runs to the end zone as Southern Miss scores a touchdown against Appalachian State Saturday night. The final score set the Golden Eagles with a victory, 21-20. -Susan Broadbridge

The Golden Eagles (2-2) face their first C-USA opponent this season when they play the Rice Owls (0-3, 0-1) this Saturday.

The matchup will give a good indication as to what should be expected for both teams moving forward in conference play.

Southern Miss has done exactly what they were expected to do so far this season. They beat two teams in Alcorn State and Appalachian State that should struggle against any FBS opponent. They also lost to two teams in Alabama and Mississippi State, members of the SEC, who rarely lose to non-conference opponents.

So to this point, it is hard to truly tell exactly what USM’s season is going to turn out like. The same can be said for Rice.

Rice was blown out by two teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, but lost by just three on a last-second field goal to conference foe Old Dominion. Old Dominion is a FBS and Conference USA newcomer and little is known about their potential moving forward.

However, Rice is the defending conference champ and should not be taken lightly despite not winning a game yet, and head coach Todd Monken is making sure his team will be ready for a fight on Saturday.

“One thing you see is a team (Rice) that plays hard, plays for each other,” Monken said. “They won a lot of close games last year which is a reflection of that. We anticipate them coming here, playing their best, trying to get their first win of the season. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build on a little bit of the momentum that we’ve had here at home during the last two games and fight like heck for a victory Saturday night.”

The Rice offense is led by junior quarterback Driphus Jackson who has accounted for 714 total yards and four touchdowns this season. However, he suffered a separated shoulder against Old Dominion and is questionable to play.

If he is unable to go, sophomore backup quarterback Tyler Stehling will get the nod as the starting quarterback. Stehling completed seven of his 12 pass attempts last week for 67 yards in relief of Jackson.

Sophomore running back Jowan Davis is a threat that the Golden Eagle defense will need to be prepared for. He is coming off a career-high 150 rushing yards against Old Dominion and has shown the ability to run between the tackles, despite being just 5 feet, 7 inches. Monken knows his defense is facing a tough task this week against an explosive and well-coached offense.

“They really want to spread you out and put you in run-pass conflict, run some play actions. They do a good job of looking at the sideline, getting themselves in the right play offensively,” Monken said. “I think they do a really good job. And so our biggest thing is how do we create turnovers? How do we not give up explosive plays?”

On paper, it looks like USM could have a big day offensively as Rice has the 122nd ranked scoring defense, allowing almost 44 points per game. However, that is not necessarily the case.

“Stats are skewed because they have played Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion with a senior quarterback who has played a number of years and is a really good player,” Monken said. “So it’s going to be really skewed when you play good players, you play good quarterbacks.”

The biggest key for the USM offense will be how they perform in the red zone. The offense has moved the ball well this season, averaging well over 300 yards per game, but are averaging just 14.8 points per game. It has been a point of emphasis over the past couple of weeks for the coaching staff, and Monken understands that the game is not won by yardage.

Games are won by big plays and ultimately, points.

“I do believe in trying to create explosive opportunities for your team,” Monken said. “It’s turnovers, it’s explosive plays, on both sides, it’s third down conversions, it’s touchdowns in the red zone. If that’s how you win, nothing about that says yards.”

It should be interesting to see how this game plays out. USM is capable of taking that next step in the rebuilding process, but when does that next step take place? Rice is a much better team than their record indicates and has the potential to win big this weekend.

This will be the game where we find out exactly where USM stands as a football program in Conference USA. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. Saturday at M.M. Roberts Stadium.