USM defense, abused in 2009, needs fresh start

By Patrick Magee/Hattiesburg American

HATTIESBURG — It’s an understatement to say the Southern Miss defense closed the 2009 season on a bad note.

The haunting memory the Golden Eagles have from last year is of Middle Tennessee State quarterback Dwight Dasher running all over them in the New Orleans Bowl, setting a bowl record with 201 rushing yards and accounting for 366 total yards and four touchdowns in the Blue Raiders’ 42-32 victory.

USM defensive coordinator Todd Bradford, who has taken the brunt of criticism from fans, says the image of Dasher ripping off big runs has stayed with him.

The way Bradford dealt with the late-season collapse in the offseason is he entered the film room in order to avoid future performances like the one in the Superdome.

“We’ve spent a lot of time researching quarterback run plays and things people are doing with their quarterbacks,” Bradford said. “We feel like we’ll have a better plan. We also need to develop more of an identity on defense this year.”

Bradford also said that he has delved further into the Houston offense and he realizes the Cougars’

pass-happy style, which torched USM for 750 total yards last season, will only become more prevalent in Conference USA. New East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil is installing the same brand of offense in Greenville, N.C.

While fingers have been pointed at a defense that ranked 80th in the nation last year, allowing 392 yards a game, coach Larry Fedora shrugs off the suggestion the defensive unit carries the load of the blame.

“I would imagine there ought to be a chip on the shoulder for everybody,” he said. “We didn’t win conference and there ought to be a chip on every coach’s shoulder and every player’s shoulder.”

But it’s clear that the pressure weighs more heavily on the Golden Eagle defenders.

“It kind of ticked us off because we didn’t play to the best of our capability,” linebacker Jamie Collins said. “We’ve got to come back and make a comeback.”

As for how far the defense has come through just over two weeks of work in spring practice, Fedora realizes there’s still a long time before the season kicks off on Sept. 2 at South Carolina.

A scrimmage in Ocean Springs on March 12 gave Fedora his best look so far at the defense.

“We still got fatigued and started making stupid mistakes,” Fedora said. “Then we had some young guys in positions where we were trying to give them some reps. They made a lot of mistakes. It’s too hard to say right now, with what we’re trying to accomplish in the spring, where we’re going to be.”

With the wide-open offenses that USM faces in C- Advertisement

USA, the Golden Eagles have spent the spring trying to prepare for everything that will be thrown their way.

“We’re basically trying to play every defense and against any look so we don’t get tempoed and have to run people on and off the field,” linebacker Korey Williams said. “We’re trying to learn to play every offensive scheme out of every defense we run.”

When Williams uses the term “tempoed,” he’s referring to the defense’s struggles to respond to the fast-paced, no-huddle offenses, which try to catch defenses with the wrong personnel on the field.

“It’s become that kind of league,” Bradford said. “The thing we’ve got to do in our league is we cannot play well for a stretch and then give up a big play.”

While the late struggles were obvious for the USM defense, the Golden Eagles were 25th in the nation in total defense before they made the fateful trip to Houston in the eighth game of the season.

While injuries to cornerback Michael McGee and defensive end Roshaad Byrd hurt the Eagles over the final five games, Williams believes the reason for the poor performance is simple.

“The defense has been flying around great (in the spring),” Williams said. “If you look at the film from last year, at the beginning of the season we were flying around and running to the ball and getting to every play. At the end of the season, we weren’t running to the ball.”