Winners of seven in a row, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles find themselves ranked 25th in the latest edition of the AP poll as they entertain fellow Conference USA member UCF this weekend in Hattiesburg.
For the Golden Eagles, this is their first appearance in the AP Top-25 since 2004 and they've done it on the strength of their best start since the 1996 campaign. If not for the 26-20 loss to Marshall in the second game of the season USM would be perfect in league play and perfect overall, but as it stands the team is still tops in the East Division of C-USA with a record of 4-1. Last weekend, the Golden Eagles recorded a convincing 48-28 win over the East Carolina Pirates, moving to 27-10 in the all-time series and an impressive 16-3 versus the Pirates in Greenville.
As for the Knights, they were initially thought to be a team to contend with in the conference, but after beating Charleston Southern and Boston College by a combined 92-3 score the squad dropped two straight and four of five, knocking them swiftly back to reality. In danger of missing out on the expansive postseason with just four wins at the moment and three games to play, UCF is trying to bounce back from a 24-17 loss recorded against Tulsa at home back on November 3.
As far as the all-time series between these two teams is concerned, Southern Miss has taken five of the last six encounters, including a 31-21 decision in Orlando on November 13 of last year. This year's meeting represents the first contest against a ranked team for the Knights, the last ranked opponent for UCF being Houston which it defeated 37-32 two years ago.
The Knights led by a point at the break against Tulsa the last time out, but in the second half the UCF offense failed to make a significant dent and that essentially cost the team the game at home. Quarterback Jeff Godfrey converted 16-of-23 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown, adding a team-best 46 yards rushing on 14 attempts, yet the group still fell short. After the Golden Hurricane scored in the fourth quarter UCF had a chance to knot the score as it moved the ball inside the five yard line, but two rushing attempts for just one yard and a pair of incomplete passes had the Knights coming up empty.
"It was a game of making plays and we obviously didn't make enough, especially in the end," said UCF head coach George O'Leary after the loss. "When you get the ball inside the five-yard line, you have to punch it in and we didn't. Then defensively, you have to stop them and we didn't do that either. Otherwise, I thought the effort was good but from a responsibility standpoint, we have to make more plays on defense and offense."
For the most part this season, the UCF defense has been pretty tight, holding four opponents to six points or less, yet somehow this is a group that has a total of just four wins. On the average, the Knights are allowing just 15.3 ppg stemming from 268.6 ypg of total offense by the opposition, both of those stats ranking the program first in the conference and fifth in the nation at the moment.
From an offensive standpoint, the Knights did most of their damage against their first two opponents then recently clobbered Memphis at home (41-0), but other than those outings UCF has scored more than 17 points only once, so clearly the team has issues when it is truly challenged. Godfrey has one of the best completion percentages in team history at .685, but the end result of all of those passes have amounted to just four touchdowns, against three interceptions. Godfrey is also first on the team with nine rushing scores, but until he allows someone else to share the load the Knights will continue to have problems.
Defensively, Josh Linam has been one of the most disruptive players in the league for the Knights, third overall on the team with 42 tackles and second in both tackles for loss and sacks with six and two, respectively. In addition, he also has two forced fumbles, one recovery and an interception which tells of someone who seems to be involved in the action quite often.
Against the Pirates last Saturday, Southern Miss recorded four consecutive touchdowns over the first and second quarters and never looked back as the special teams registered a pair of TDs as did the defense in the meeting. The Golden Eagles converted just 3-of-10 on third down and controlled the ball for barely 24 minutes, generating a mere 299 yards of offense, which just goes to show that stats don't always tell the entire story.
"Our special teams made some really nice plays and some game-changing plays," USM head coach Larry Fedora remarked. "The defense scored as much as we did on offense, basically."
Jamie Collins and Deron Wilson both returned interceptions for touchdowns against ECU, while Tracy Lampley brought back a punt 60 yards for a score and Emmanuel Johnson recorded a TD after returning a blocked punt 15 yards, so really the offense didn't need to do too much for the Golden Eagles anyway.
Quarterback Austin Davis connected on 16-of-24 passes for 133 yards and a score to at least contribute.
The defense for USM was all over opposing quarterback Dominique Davis with a pair of interceptions and five sacks.
Sacks have not been all that easy to come by this season for Southern Miss, the team averaging just 2.1 per game to rank fourth in the conference and tied for 42nd in the nation, but when it comes to tackles for loss there are few teams that perform as well. Even though the Golden Eagles rank third in their own conference in TFL, their 7.8 per outing are ninth-best in the nation. Because of that kind of pressure in the backfield the team has been able to limit scoring chances and now foes are averaging just 19.6 ppg which is second-best in Conference USA and 19th in the nation this week.
Offensively, the Golden Eagles rely heavily on the run game, one that has produced 206.8 ypg to rank first in the conference and 22nd in the country. There are many hands that are involved in running the ball for USM, but at the top of the heap for the time being is Jamal Woodyard with 475 yards and three TDs, averaging close to seven yards per carry for a group that averages a very strong five yards per attempt overall.