By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss and Southern Methodist are two programs trying to get noticed on a national level, with talented teams that are playing in the relative obscurity of Conference USA.
The winner of Saturday’s game will be a lot closer to that goal.
Southern Miss (5-1, 1-1 C-USA) hosts SMU (5-1, 3-0) at Roberts Stadium this weekend and depending on what happens in the college football world, the winner could wind up in the national rankings. Both the Golden Eagles and Mustangs received votes in the latest Associated Press poll.
“This is why you play the game, to play in the big games like this,” Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis said. “This is what you dream about as a kid. They’re a good football team, we’re pretty hot here lately and there’s going to be a packed house. Both teams will be excited and I just can’t wait to get going.”
There’s a reason both programs have attracted national attention. Southern Miss has won four straight games, including road victories over Virginia and Navy.
SMU earned its marquee win three weeks ago, beating then-No. 20 Texas Christian 40-33 in overtime. The Mustangs only loss was its season-opener against Texas A&M and the ensuing five-game winning streak is the program’s best since 1997.
There should be no shortage of offense on Saturday. Southern Miss has averaged more than 48 points per game during its four-game winning streak over the past month, leaning on a running attack that averages a league-best 212.8 yards per game.
The Golden Eagles have suffered multiple injuries in the backfield this season, but continue to produce thanks to depth and a quality offensive line. Against Navy, it was fourth-string running back Jeremy Hester that led the team with 118 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Davis said he expects the offensive production to continue this weekend. One reason is SMU runs the same base defensive formation as Virginia and Navy.
“The thing SMU does is throw a few more looks at you,” Davis said. “They’re going to rotate the coverage a little more, blitz a little more, try to confuse you and force you into a bad decision. So I’m going to have to be very crisp. When they throw a bizarre look out there I’ve got to be ready.”
SMU’s offense has been just as prolific, though it prefers to throw the ball a little more. The Mustangs are averaging 332 passing yards per game, behind only Houston in the conference. Senior J.J. McDermott has emerged as the starting quarterback and thrown for 1,840 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions, leading the Mustangs to their best start since 1986.
Fedora said McDermott and SMU’s receivers are the focal point of the offense, but it would be foolish to think the Mustangs are one-dimensional.
“They deceive you because they can still run the football,” Fedora said. “People think it’s nothing but throwing the ball, but then you have Zach Line leading the league in rushing. They run the football effectively.”
In his fourth season at SMU, Jones’ run-and-shoot offense has finally taken full effect. Over the past four games, the Mustangs have amassed nearly 2,000 yards of total offense. Things have stayed balanced, with Line rushing for 10 touchdowns and McDermott throwing for nearly 1,500 yards.
Jones said off-the-field continuity has finally turned into results on the field.
“The chemistry is working,” Jones said. “We’ve had some really good things here happen internally, and that’s what excites me.”