When he was hired, first-year Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson said leading the Golden Eagles' program was a dream job. Now, with one game remaining in his still-winless debut season, it's natural to wonder if that is still true.
"The overall experience of it-I never foresaw this," Johnson said when asked if Southern Miss was still his dream job. "I have a good track record. Southern Miss has a good track record. It can be fixed, but everyone has to pull in the same direction."
The Golden Eagles have one last chance to do that this week against Memphis, winners of two straight. If Southern Miss can't pull out the win, it will finish the season as the first winless team at the school since 1925. That team went 0-6. This year's Golden Eagles could double that with a loss at Memphis.
If Southern Miss is able to pull out the victory, it will send a dreadful season out on the happiest note possible. Nothing seems to have gone right for Southern Miss. Aside from the transitions of a new coaching staff, the Golden Eagles suffered considerable injury issues. All four tight ends are out for the season. Four quarterbacks have played.
Johnson said the loss of the tight ends cost Southern Miss about half the formations he wanted to implement.
Said Johnson: "There are obvious things that happened to this football team-and I say this mostly in defense of the players-there are things that this football team incurred that are overwhelming, smothering. The injury factor being the most obvious."
- Will Southern Miss be mentally exhausted against Memphis? The Golden Eagles lost last week thanks to a missed two-point conversion with about two minutes to play. Coach Ellis Johnson said his team was emotionally charged for the game. It showed in good ways and bad, as the Golden Eagles lost control of their emotions and committed three harmful personal-foul penalties.
- Kickoff-return defense has been one of many bugaboos for Southern Miss this year. Memphis is better than average in kickoff returns, which could present a problem for the Golden Eagles. Last week it killed them. USM had just tied the game late in the fourth quarter when it allowed a 98-yard touchdown return.
Said Johnson: "In the end, the biggest football factor was the difference in the kickoff-return yardage. It was (128 yards) difference in what we got and what they got."
- Without school for most of this week, the Golden Eagles will have practices and meetings early in the day so that players have a chance to see family later for Thanksgiving. But they won't be totally away from football.
Said Johnson: "It will be a full day for them. When you have a game on Saturday, you just can't take the days off."
Series History: Southern Miss leads Memphis 40-21-1 (last meeting, 2011, 44-7 Southern Miss).
Scouting The Offense: Last week, the Golden Eagles' offense unloaded arguably its best offensive performance of the season. Southern Miss scored a season-high 33 points and churned out 108 more yards than it had all season. Had Southern Miss converted for a two-point PAT late in the fourth quarter, the Golden Eagles likely would have won.
Scouting The Defense: Southern Miss continues to allow too many points. Coming into last week's game, UTEP was averaging just 19 points per game. The Miners had scored more than 26 points only twice all season, then dropped 34 on Southern Miss.
Quote To Note: "I think you absolutely have to give him the first start, but there's certainly going to be some open competition. Nobody has taken the ball through the entire season." Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson when asked if Arsenio Favor will continue as the starting QB through the spring.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: The game known as the Black and Blue Bowl is Southern Miss' oldest rivalry. The teams have met almost every year since 1981, and that streak could be in jeopardy with Memphis moving to the Big East next year. This year's game will mean little in the standings, as the programs occupy the basement of Conference USA.
Keys To The Game: Memphis has momentum and a stout defense. If Southern Miss is to finally win a game this season, the Golden Eagles almost certainly will have to score on defense or special teams. The Tigers are strong in the return game, something that has befuddled USM all year. The Golden Eagles can't allow any big plays in the return game.
Players To Watch:
WR Quentin Pierce - A career-high 125 yards receiving should be enough for him to draw plenty of attention from the Memphis defenders. He more than doubled his yardage output for the season with that game.
QB Arsenio Favor - Under scrutiny for being suspended the week before, Favor responded with a career-high 377 yards passing against UTEP. It was the fifth-best passing performance in school history. Now Favor will show if he can handle success.
LB Jamie Collins - He is Southern Miss' best NFL prospect, and he has put up some of the best numbers of any Golden Eagles player this year. Collins ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss and 12th in the country in sacks.