Birmingham, AL – The Southern Mississippi Eagles will try to wrap up the Conference USA East Division title this weekend, taking the UAB Blazers in Birmingham in Conference USA action.
Southern Miss has won eight straight games, and survived in dramatic fashion last weekend with 30-29 last-second win over UCF. The 9-1 start represents the best since 1962 and the Golden Eagles have an opportunity to capture their third 10-win season in program history should they prevail over the Blazers. A win would also give Southern Miss the outright Conference USA East Division title for the first time in five years. Southern Miss holds a 9-2 series record over UAB.
The Blazers also won emphatically last weekend. UAB trailed Memphis 35-17 in the fourth quarter, but proceeded to score 24-unanswered points to beat the Tigers 41-35 and cap the largest fourth quarter comeback in school history. It was just the second win of the season for UAB, but it was the type of win that gives the program confidence heading down the stretch, playing its final two games against the Golden Eagles Thursday and traveling to Florida Atlantic for the season finale next weekend.
Against UCF, Austin Davis passed for 366 yards and two touchdowns, and the offense received a huge boost from the kicking game as Danny Hrapmann booted five field goals. Ryan Balentine added six catches and 122 yards for Southern Miss, which amassed 519 yards of total offense. The rushing attack was led by Jamal Woodyard, who gained 70 yards on 12 carries.
Davis has played efficient as of late, and ranks 44th in the country in passing efficiency (138.1). Southern Miss ranks fourth in the league in passing offense at 258.6 yards per outing, and are third in total offense with 457.4 per game. Davis' 364 yards against UCF was the first time head thrown for over 300 yards since late September against Virginia. Overall, Davis has thrown for 2,511 yards this season with 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
UCF pulled within one point with a touchdown as time expired, but came up short on a potential game winning two point conversion when Southern Miss defender Jacorius Cotton deflected a pass in the end zone. It was a signature moment for the Southern Miss defense, which has been a key in the Golden Eagles run through the last couple months of the season. Ronnie Thorton leads the team with 7.5 tackles per game, and Caddaro Law has had another impressive campaign in 2011, ranking third in the C-USA in tackles for loss (1.4) and is tied for fourth in sacks per game (.65). Southern Miss is third in the league in total defense, allowing 345.5 yards per game.
"I think Southern Mississippi's offense is a lot like Houston's. They have been explosive ever since [head coach] Larry Fedora has been there and they have an outstanding quarterback," said UAB head coach Neil Callaway at his weekly press conference. "Defensively, they are better than Houston. Their statistics in several different defensive categories are in the top three. It will be quite a challenge. It's a game we are looking forward to and we are going to make sure to be ready to play Thursday night."
Jonathan Perry passed for a career-high 410 yards and four touchdowns in UAB's huge rally, and engineered a 10-play, 77-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that ended with Greg Franklin's 10-yard touchdown run with 1:36 remaining to give UAB the lead for good. Franklin and Darrin Reaves were the mainstays on the ground, as both had 73-yard rushing and Jamarcus Nelson added six catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns for the Blazers, which recorded 601 yards of total offense.
It was the offense's brightest moment of the season, and Perry's best game in what has been a rough season for the Blazers offensively. Perry had thrown for just 300 yards once this season prior to last weekend's game, and overall has thrown for 1,616 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions this year. UAB ranks 114th in the country in scoring offense (17.3) and is ninth in the C-USA in total offense, generating 356.1 yards per game.
The defense is one of the most porous units in the country, and is tied for 115th in total defense, surrendering 488.8 yards per outing. That didn't matter in the second half against Memphis, who fell flat offensively and allowed the Blazers to give the ball back to their offense repeatedly. That keyed the comeback. In the two games prior to last Saturday's win, UAB had allowed 59 and 56 points respectively to Marshall and Houston in losses. The Blazers are last in the country in sacks per game (.70) and 114th in tackles for loss (4.0). Callaway was pleased with the progress his defense made against Memphis.
"On defense we settled down. When I said we missed assignments, it may be just a slight technique lining up here or lining up there. But we just weren't doing the things we needed to do. I think the resiliency of the guys came through and we kept plugging," said Callaway.