There was a glint of excitement in the eyes of Southern Miss players, coaches and fans going into last week's game against Marshall.
Sure, the Golden Eagles were winless, but they were coming off a double-overtime loss to traditional league power Central Florida and had a beatable opponent at home in Marshall, which had two wins. They also had a strong week of practice, so many were expecting a competitive game, perhaps one that would give scuffling Southern Miss some much-needed confidence.
Instead, the Golden Eagles regressed, suffering their worst loss of the year. The 35-point thumping hurt, but perhaps more than anything, is was confusing.
"If you had a problem in practice or a poor week of preparation or poor concentration, you'd have a reason for it, but it really puzzles me that we didn't play better," Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson said. "We've got to find the answer to it and do a better job coaching and get them ready to go."
That may be more difficult because the Golden Eagles brought the program to a low it hasn't experienced in several years. Southern Miss had lined up 18 straight winning seasons, impressive for any program, especially a mid-level one.
"I just didn't see the confidence and the competitiveness and the physical play, especially on defense, that we'd had the week before," Johnson said.
- Sophomore QB Arsenio Favor is likely to start for Southern Miss, becoming the fourth QB to start for the Golden Eagles this year. Favor had a chance to compete for the starting job at one time, but he suffered a knee injury that kept him off the practice field till a couple weeks ago.
Said Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson:
"We've got a lot of confidence in him, and he hasn't had enough repetitions in the scheme to know how comfortable he's going to be, but he's going to have to get the first-team reps this week and be ready to go."
- At his weekly news conference this week, Johnson was asked if he considered making changes on the coaching staff, his first at Southern Miss. He said it "hasn't crossed his mind."
Added Johnson: "I have confidence in these guys. If I thought they weren't pushing the right buttons, we'd have pushed a different button. It comes down to coaching, teaching, motivating and player accountability. You've got to have all of it if you're going to be successful."
- Some years you get bounces, and some years you don't. This year, for whatever reason, the Golden Eagles simply aren't getting the turnovers that have helped define the defense in past years. They have forced only five this year, which is ugly when you compare it to the 16 they have committed.
Series History: Southern Miss leads Rice 3-1 (last meeting, 2011, 48-24 Southern Miss).
Scouting The Offense: The Golden Eagles' lack of consistency and efficiency at the quarterback position is stifling Southern Miss' offense. Three quarterbacks have started because of a combination of youth, poor play and injuries. It looks like Arsenio Favor could be the next starter.
Scouting The Defense: Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson said the bottom line for the defense is that it is surrendering too much rushing yardage and compounding that by not creating turnovers. The Golden Eagles are better than only two teams in the country in turnover margin.
Quote To Note: "We've tried to challenge them just to play for each other, get as many rewards and fun and memories out of it for the seniors as they can grab on the way out. For the rest of them, it's the very first game of 2013. We have to try to improve as a football team down the back stretch, grab some wins and get better." - Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: Rice and Southern Miss are both struggling. Both seemed to take a step back last week after a solid game the week before that. Rice still has a chance to play for bowl eligibility.
Keys To The Game: Southern Miss is marginally better against the run than the pass, so Rice, which doesn't have a great passing game, could be a more favorable matchup than what Marshall was. The Golden Eagles should have the same advantage when running the ball. Winning the turnover margin should make the game close for Southern Miss.
Players To Watch:
RB Kendrick Hardy - He has been hampered by a hamstring injury this season, but he may be picking up steam. Hardy had eight carries for 50 yards last week, both modest season highs. But he only had 10 carries for 75 yards all season before last week.
DB Deron Wilson - He logged four pass breakups against Marshall, giving him 31 on his career. That ties him for second place in Southern Miss history in that category.
K Corey Acosta - After making a career-high 51-yard field goal last week, Acosta might be gaining confidence. That could be key if Acosta and Southern Miss play in a tight game.
- QB Anthony Alford suffered turf toe injury, and his practice participation will be limited. It's not certain if that injury will affect his status for the Rice game.
- QB Ricky Lloyd suffered a season ending knee injury early in the 4th quarter of the Marshall game.
- QB Chris Campbell was cleared to play after missing nearly a month due to a knee injury, but he probably won't play much, because of rust.