USM preview: Golden Eagles can fly, but have trouble stopping their prey

 

If you were a child of the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Miss was as much a regular part of Alabama’s schedule as was Tennessee or Auburn.

Things have changed somewhat in the 21st Century, and the Golden Eagles now make infrequent trips to Tuscaloosa, just frequent enough to bring out the nostalgia of names like Curley Hallman and Brett Favre and Reggie Collier. But instead of being known as the southern spoiler nonpareil, as was its reputation 20 years ago, Southern Miss is now just another in a sea of small schools that struggle to punch above their weight.

Southern Miss comes into this game, like many modern, smaller programs, a pass-happy, defense-starved outfit that can put up the points, but has trouble staying in games against talented teams that employ faster athletes. Southern Miss defeated Alcorn State in its opener, although not overwhelmingly, and beat fellow Goliath-fighter Troy last week, 47-42. But in between, Southern Miss fell on its face against a middling Mississippi State program, 38-15.

Alabama would just like to get through the week with no serious injury, which it could not say leaving Columbia, S.C., last Saturday night. The Tide should roll in this game, but Southern Miss at least has the passing attack to keep the first half interesting.

OFFENSE

Southern Miss is a spread team that ranks a respectable 46th in total offense and a more-than-competent 12th in passing offense. But this is one of the worst running teams in the country (114th), and offensive efficiency has struggled as a result, with the Golden Eagles ranking just 53rd in scoring offense despite playing Alcorn State and Troy. Jay Hopson has been a decent, if not great coach in Hattiesburg, and his intention heading into 2019 was to establish more offensive balance with this team, but it doesn’t seem to have worked yet. Alabama, meanwhile, isn’t exactly burning the ground up (55th-ranked rushing offense), but with the 6th-ranked passing attack in the country, the Tide is inside the top 10 in total offense (8th). Alabama also ranks 8th in scoring and is efficient in important metrics like 3rd-down offense and red zone offense. Like Southern Miss, though, Alabama’s desire to get more physical is a work in progress.

QUARTERBACKS

Jack Abraham is a bit of a weird quarterback; he is exceptionally accurate (73.1% in 2018, 71.1% in 2019), but he has already thrown 3 interceptions this year after pitching 10 of them last year. He also isn’t a prolific touchdown thrower (5 this season vs. 15 last season), but his QB rating of 175.2 is very solid. Aside from the TD-INT ratio, his numbers are similar to those of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Tate Whatley is listed as the backup, but he has only rushed 3 times and not thrown a pass yet as Abraham’s backup. As a runner, Abraham isn’t slow, but he’s not going to be making Alabama’s life hard on the ground, either.

For Alabama, Tagovailoa is off to yet another award-winning season, already topping the 1,000-yard mark with 12 touchdown passes and no picks. Mac Jones has proven to be a capable backup quarterback, at least during trash time. With Lia Tagovailoa sitting during back-to-back blowouts, it’s a pretty good indication Alabama intends to just go with two QBs the rest of the way in (or at least until Western Carolina comes to town Nov. 23). While Abraham is a step up from the quarterbacks of Duke and New Mexico State, he isn’t going to recall the echoes of Favre, either. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS

Najee Harris stepped up nicely on the big stage last week, and even if his running stats were pedestrian, his overall impact on the win at South Carolina was huge. Brian Robinson Jr. also had a better performance as his backup, and Keilan Robinson got reps as the third back ahead of Jerome Ford. It was a step in the right direction for a position group that had gotten off to a rough start on the season, and all players need to back it up this week with a second solid performance.

Southern Miss, though, has even more work ahead of it. Kevin Perkins, the team’s starter and a former Troy player, is averaging around 5 yards per carry but has no scores. Steven Anderson and Dee Barker are the backups, but together they have failed to break the 4-yard-per-carry mark. Anderson has the only rushing touchdown out of the running back group. The leading rusher on the team in terms of attempts is wide receiver De’Michael Harris, a sprite of a player generously listed at 5’9” in the program. Harris’ carries come on jet sweeps and other outside runs. Neither team is setting the world on fire at the moment but Alabama’s overall talent level is much higher. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS

As expected, Southern Miss has put up good numbers in the passing game, with three receivers (Jordan Mitchell, Jaylond Adams and Quez Watkins) over the 200-yard mark already and a fourth receiver, Tim Jones, not far off. Jones and Mitchell were returning starters from 2018, while Watkins was a key reserve and Adams on his way to being a contributor before suffering a season-ending injury four games into the year. Trevor Terry, Neil McLaurin and the aforementioned De’Michael Harris round out the group.

For Alabama, the story is much the same, with Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III all over the 200-yard mark and Jaylen Waddle knocking on the door. Southern Miss has used more players here than has Alabama, as the Tide’s next wave (John Metchie, Tyrell Shavers and Slade Bolden) have just 2 catches between them. Neither team uses the tight ends much; Alabama has 7 completions to its tight ends, with co-starters Major Tennison and Miller Forristall banking 3 each.

For Southern Miss, Ray Ladner has been a blocker only, while reserve Cole Cavallo has one catch. Southern Miss might have one or two receivers in the mix above the number Alabama uses, but the talent isn’t really comparable. Alabama has the best WRs in the country. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE

Southern Miss has done a decent job keeping Abraham off his back; the Golden Eagles rank 37th in sacks allowed. But they also rank 75th in tackles for loss allowed despite not really prioritizing the running game. Thus, the USM offensive line starts to look like stand-ins for Alabama’s line, which has itself had issues blocking in the running game so far this year. Trace Clopton is slated to start for Southern Miss at center, with Bryce Foxworth and Ty Pollard the guards and Drake Dorbeck and Arvin Fletcher starting at the tackles. Size really isn’t an issue for anyone here, as it tends to be for smaller schools, but continuity is, as Southern Miss has shuffled the pieces trying to find the best lineup.

Alabama will counter with Chris Owens at center, Landon Dickerson and Evan Neal at the guard spots and Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills at tackle. Alabama played better the longer the South Carolina game went along, but the Gamecocks didn’t have much depth on the defensive front and got worn down. Emil Ekiyor returned as a backup guard last week, so it will be interesting to see if he gets another audition at left guard. Everything has the potential to change next week with Deonte Brown’s return, but for this week the focus is simply on consistency. Alabama just has better numbers and far better depth. Advantage: Alabama

READ MORE:  Defense


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