After gaining momentum with a 47-42 at Troy last week, the Southern Miss football team will have to find a way to make some noise Saturday at SEC powerhouse Alabama.
At first glance, the mission appears impossible for the Golden Eagles (2-1) as a 39-point underdog.
The Alabama offense features arguably the best passer in all of college football in junior Tua Tagovailoa and a supremely talented receiving corps.
Considering Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker threw for 504 yards and had four receivers clear 100 yards against Southern Miss, the Crimson Tide seem to be a nightmare match-up for the Golden Eagles’ defense.
“They’re kind of like Troy, except on steroids,” USM defensive coordinator Tim Billings said of the Alabama offense. “They have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and maybe the best group of four receivers in the history of the NCAA. They can run. They’re really good players. They also have good running backs and a great offensive line.
“They have another opportunity to play for a national championship.”
Tagovailoa has completed 76.9 percent of his passes for 1,007 and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions. Jerry Jeudy, who has 24 catches for 308 yards and four touchdowns, leads a group of four receivers with over 150 yards this season.
The USM defensive line will have to find a way to put some pressure on Tagovailoa, but the onus is on the secondary to do a better job in pass coverage.
“We didn’t bring our A-game in that area (against Troy), and we have to play better this week,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said
While it’s hard to see the USM secondary making dramatic improvement a week after Troy’s receivers gashed the group for big gainers, Billings is confident that that the problems require simple solutions.
“We’ve got the same guys (from 2018),” he said. “We’re just surprisingly doing things I didn’t think we’d do. We’ve got to be in the right place.
“We’ve just got to start being a little bit more aggressive and a little more confident in going for the football. It’s crazy if you’re out there and you don’t make a few plays, you lose a little bit of confidence. The longer you’re out there, you give another opportunity.”
Here are some other areas to keep an eye on Saturday for Southern Miss-Alabama:
▪ Young linebacker: USM redshirt freshman linebacker Hayes Maples made his first start last week against Troy and he may be on track to receive even more playing time Saturday.
USM head coach Jay Hopson said Monday that he expects redshirt junior linebacker Racheem Boothe to play after leaving in the first half of the Troy game, but the Bassfield native had to be helped off the field and finished the game on the sideline with his left foot in a boot. Even if he does somehow make his way onto the field, it’s hard to imagine him being very mobile.
At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Maples could give the Eagles a little more thump against the ground game.
▪ Headed home: After tearing up Troy last week, USM receivers Quez Watkins and Jaylond Adams get another chance to show out in their home state of Alabama.
Alabama coach Nick Saban acknowledged that USM is “explosive” in the return game and Adams, an Adamsville native, leads the nation with an average of 47.4 yards and two touchdowns on five kick returns. As a punt returner, Adams ranks second in the nation with an average of 29.4 yards and one TD on four returns.
Watkins, who hails from Athens, will have a hard time repeating his seven-catch, 209-yard, two-touchdown season debut at Troy.
The USM roster features 10 players from Alabama. The Crimson Tide have five players from Mississippi, including senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis of Meridian.
One USM tie on the Alabama football staff is defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who has seen a meteoric rise in the coaching profession after serving as the secondary coach at USM in 2014 and 2015 under Todd Monken. Golding spent two seasons as the defensive coordinator at UTSA before joining the Alabama staff in 2018.
▪ Special teams glance: If USM is to somehow make the game competitive going into the second half, it will have to have a solid game on special teams — an area where Alabama is somewhat vulnerable.
The Crimson Tide rank 125th in the nation with an average of 36.6 yards per punt and one boot by Skyler DeLong last week against South Carolina went only 14 yards.
As for USM, it has to do a much better job on kickoff coverage after giving up a 69-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Troy. With opponents averaging 28 yards per kick return, USM ranks 120th in the nation.
▪ The series: Alabama holds a 35-6-2 lead in the series against Southern Miss, which has left Tuscaloosa with a win only once — a 38-29 game in Bear Bryant’s final home game as head coach on Nov. 13, 1982.
USM’s last win in the series was a 21-0 shutout at Legion Field in Birmingham on Sept. 16, 2000.
USM has a win over Alabama in every decade since the 80’s, but Saturday’s game will mark the program’s final shot at a win over Alabama in the 2010’s.