After watching Southern Miss run through and around Rice last week, racking up 370 yards, you wonder what the Golden Eagles' running game will do for an encore.
Through the first five games of the season, Southern Miss' running game has been maddeningly inconsistent. Here are the net rushing yards the Golden Eagles put up in the four games prior to last week: 153, 75, 335, 61.
Certainly, the schedule sequence played some role in the inconsistency. In consecutive weeks, the Golden Eagles played their least talented opponent (Southeastern Louisiana), followed by the most talented opponent (Virginia). But part of the problem is definitely performance related. With several new pieces, Southern Miss's offensive line has been trying to find chemistry.
The Golden Eagles need another strong performance from the running game this week to counter Navy's triple-option offense, which can grind down the game clock and opposing defenses.
"I think controlling the tempo is very important," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "I'm not saying we won't change or we won't continue to go fast. I think it's just critical that we move the chains in everything that we do."
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the Golden Eagles' backfield is banged up. Southern Miss's top two rushers - Kendrick Hardy and Jamal Woodyard - left the game against Rice with injuries.
Woodyard aggravated an ankle injury. The nature of Hardy's injury has not been disclosed by Southern Miss. The back who started the season opener, Desmond Johnson, hasn't played since after spraining a knee ligament.
The injury situation should test the Southern Miss running back depth. Tracy Lampley (nine carries, 70 yards last week) and Jeremy Hester (eight carries, 44 yards) are capable replacements.
- No team in the country has more tackles for loss than Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles' aggressive defense averages nearly nine tackles for loss per game. Southern Miss drove Rice back 41 yards thanks to tackles for loss.
"I think it's confidence that the defensive line has in what they are doing," coach Larry Fedora said. "I think it's confidence in the entire defensive scheme. I think it's changing things up from play to play where it makes it more difficult on the offense. And, these guys are having fun."
- WR Ryan Balentine is having a breakout year in his senior season. The first reason is that he has the opportunity. Balentine has more catches through five games this season (24) than in his first two combined (16). He's the Golden Eagles' leading receiver.
"Ryan knows he can make plays at any time," coach Larry Fedora said. "He's very athletic and acrobatic. He can make catches way outside the frame of his body and stay on his feet and still go. He's got really good hands and has a lot of confidence in what he's doing."
- The Golden Eagles produced a school-record 654 yards against Rice despite four turnovers. That has been a bugaboo for Southern Miss this season. In most of the major statistical categories kept by the NCAA, the Golden Eagles rank among the top third of the nation. In turnover margin, they rank 103rd out of 120 teams.
Series History: First meeting.
Scouting The Offense: Southern Miss has showed impressive balance in its offense this season. Coming into the Navy game, the Golden Eagles average 255 passing yards per game and nearly 200 rushing yards per game.
It's good enough to make the Golden Eagles the 30th-ranked offense in the country. Navy has struggled against the run, so, even with some injuries in their backfield, the Golden Eagles could have a big game on the ground.
Scouting The Defense: It will be strength vs. strength when Southern Miss is on defense. Navy's triple-option makes it one of the best running teams in the country. The Golden Eagles have the best run defense in Conference USA.
Quote To Note: "Running backs going down are part of football. You just know that going into every season. You are going to have to have your two, your three and possibly your fourth back and they are just going to take a beating, especially as much as we want to run the football." - Southern Miss QB Austin Davis.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week's Game: The Golden Eagles' final non-conference game of 2011 is the program's first matchup with Navy. It will provide some unique challenges because of the triple-option offense that Navy runs.
Keys To The Game: As it is against any strong triple-option team, Southern Miss has to stay disciplined and patient. If the Golden Eagles get rushed, they could surrender a big play. Winning the time of possession will be important.
Players To Watch:
QB Austin Davis - With the injuries to three key running backs, the onus to keep the chains moving might fall more on Davis' shoulders. Not only is he one of the best passers in school history, he is a capable runner.
DL Jamie Collins - The emergence of Collins is a big reason why Southern Miss has the most tackles for loss in the nation. The junior averages nearly two tackles for loss per game. A handful of team average only three tackles per loss per game.
K Danny Hrapmann - This was supposed to be an All-American type of season. But Hrapmann has struggled, especially early in games. In the first quarter against Rice, Hrapmann missed a 48-yard field goal and an extra point. Later in the game he missed a 54-yard field goal.
- RB Jamal Woodyard (ankle) and RB Kendrick Hardy (injury undisclosed) each went down against Rice.
- RB Desmond Johnson missed his fourth straight game with a knee injury.