Usually, when two teams are searching for an identity and something to hang their hat on, the month is either September or October. However, for two of Conference USA’s more confounding clubs, the fact of the matter is that in the month of November – with week 10 beckoning – a clear and distinct gridiron personality has yet to emerge along the Gulf Coast of the United States.
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles head south on I-59 to square off with Conference USA foes Tulane in “The Battle for the Bell” this upcoming Saturday. A victory in the Louisiana Superdome would make the Golden Eagles bowl-eligible, but would likely do little to erase the sting of one-point losses to UAB and East Carolina that all but crushed Southern Miss’s C-USA title hopes.
Southern Miss has looked fabulous at some points during the 2010 season. USM was lights-out in an athletic, fast-paced and altogether forceful thrashing of Kansas on national television (ESPN2) earlier this season in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. USM was also distinguished in its throttling of Marshall, a 41-16 blitzing back on Oct. 2. Southern Miss may very well take out its frustration on Tulane, since the Golden Eagles rebounded from the East Carolina loss earlier in the season by pounding Memphis, 41-19. Indeed, there are days when Southern Mississippi looks like a small-scale juggernaut because it owns a lot of skill-position talent and the coach with an offense-first mentality – Larry Fedora – who can make the USM Ferrari roar with efficiency. Then again, there are days when USM’s sometimes-stout defense gives way and plays just poorly enough to lose.
For all the 41-16 and 41-19-type wins on the slate, the Golden Eagles have dropped the nail-biters they’ve played. If their defense had made just one or two plays – literally – against either East Carolina or UAB, they’d be unbeaten in C-USA’s East Division. As things stand right now, though, they’re out of the East race while UCF and East Carolina battle for the flag. That’s how a lack of an identity – particularly on defense – can be so devastating to a team.
This week, Fedora figures to pound running backs Kendrick Hardy and Desmond Johnson at a Tulane defense that gives up 186.4 rushing yards per game and has conceded 22 rushing touchdowns. Golden Eagles quarterback Austin Davis can run the ball as well; his six rushing touchdowns lead Southern Miss.
The Green Wave, for their part, are also somewhat schizophrenic and have failed to show themselves consistently to the world, for better or worse. Admittedly, this isn’t entirely bad. It used to be that Tulane had a clear personality – a bad one. The Green Wave used to get drubbed with more frequency, but in 2010, they’ve put up their dukes a little more. They won at UTEP a few weeks ago. Last week, they dominated – yes, dominated – SMU for two and a half quarters before giving up the ghost down the stretch in a 31-17 loss. Tulane won at Rutgers and played Houston far closer than the final 42-23 score ever suggested. Then again, the Green Wave were roughed up at Tulsa by 28 points. Will the real Tulane please stand up?
In this game against Southern Miss, Tulane will attempt to run the ball, chiefly because sophomore quarterback Ryan Griffin has been inconsistent all season. Frosh running back Orleans Darkwa leads the Green Wave with 480 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 88 carries. Unfortunately for Tulane, the Southern Miss rushing defense is among the stoutest in the nation, holding opponents to only 100.9 yards rushing per game.Southern Miss can’t always defend. Tulane can’t always play teams close. Which teams will emerge inside the big dome in the Big Easy? It’s just another unpredictable Saturday in Conference USA.