November 11, 2013

Monken Talks Florida Atlantic Preparation

After a disastrous 0-12 season in 2012, most Southern Miss fans didn't think it could get any worse. This new season, many thought, would bring about a massive change in leadership and at least one victory on the gridiron. Fast-forward to week ten of the 2013 season and it doesn't seem like things are much different. The Golden Eagles sit at 0-10 after weeks of getting bullied and beaten up by Conference USA and coach Todd Monken is desperately searching for something - anything - to turn the tide.

The best possible chance for that comes this Saturday when Southern Miss takes on FAU, a team under interim tutelage due to the firing of former head coach Carl Pelini. Pelini was dismissed after an assistant coach alleged Pelini had admitted to using cocaine and marijuana.

If the Owls were supposed to slide into oblivion after the incident nobody has told them yet. FAU is coming off a nice upset of Tulane and will be looking to begin a three-game stretch against Southern Miss, New Mexico and FIU (three of the worst teams in college football) to gain bowl eligibility despite the drama surrounding the program.

"We got Louisiana Tech out of the way yesterday and now we're onto Florida Atlantic, who a couple of weeks ago went through some unfortunate circumstances," Monken said. "I thought, as a team and a group of coaches, they did a good job of moving forward. You look at the film (of a 34-17 win over Tulane), tough first half for them but they really dominated the game after that with four straight turnovers."

If Monken and his staff have any hope of notching a coveted victory, it starts with containing Owl quarterback Jaquez Johnson. The former East Mississippi Community College star has thrown for 1,290 yards and six touchdowns this season behind an offense that lives and dies by his production. Johnson is a dual threat who can gouge teams with his legs just as easily as with his arms. The sophomore has rushed for 513 yards - only 158 less than USM's entire team.

"It all goes through him. He's a guy from right up the road who played at East Mississippi last year and is a powerful runner, thrower and he's a tough guy to bring down," Monken said.

For the Eagles, establishing a run game will be imperative to the team's chances at stealing a win. Southern Miss only ran the ball 14 times in last week's loss to Louisiana Tech, something Monken says has to change.

"We've got to find a way to continue to run the ball. We've got to be better at running the ball schematically," he said. "We've got to do a better job of blocking it. But then we've also got to be in the game. We've got to give ourselves the chance to run the ball more often."

The lack of a rushing attack has put more pressure on freshman quarterback Nick Mullens, who threw the ball 51 times for 298 yards and three interceptions in the loss. That type of unbalanced system, mixed with injuries and mistakes, has hindered Mullens' development and stunted his growth.

"We've got to continue to try to run the ball. We've got to find a way to not put so much pressure on him to make every play … And then, if we're going to have to play pitch and catch, we're going to have to catch the son of a gun."

The one good news for Southern Miss is that the team returns to Hattiesburg for a two-game home stretch that should bring some semblance of comfort and familiarity to the team. The Eagles have competed in two of their three games at The Rock this season and look to use that as motivation heading into this Saturday's matchup.

"This will be our 10thtwo times in terms of the score, not so much in terms of efficiency. The last game here we didn't play as well as we would have liked. There are (positive) signs."

And while those signs might not be obvious to the viewing public, Monken knows his team has marginally improved from week to week. When asked how badly this season has impacted recruiting, Monken was his usual candid self. The first-year head coach was the most animated he had been all day when discussing the history and tradition of a program he looks to overhaul entirely in the next couple of years.

"Even with this year, 18 of the last 20 years, Southern Miss has had a winning season. We've been to 14 bowl games. We'll put that up against anybody," Monken said. "Are people going to pick at you? Of course, that's the here and now. But they better pick on us now."


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