After last weekend's 50-49 double-overtime loss to Alabama-Birmingham, the Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-2 Conference USA) have lost two conference games by a total of two points. Now in third place in the league's East Division, any chance at a conference championship is a longshot.
USM coach Larry Fedora doesn't mind the frustration. In fact, he's encouraging it considering the Golden Eagles only have themselves to blame after a penalty-prone, defensively-challenged string of games.
"I want them to be frustrated right now," Fedora said. "I hope they are frustrated and it is tearing them up inside. If not, then I have the wrong guys."
Now the challenge is getting past the disappointment and moving on to prepare for Saturday's road game against Tulane (3-5, 1-3) in New Orleans. The Golden Eagles have won five straight in the series dating back to 2002.
After such an encouraging start to the season, USM's defense has regressed, giving up 38 points per game over the past three games. It seems little coincidence that the Golden Eagles' problems began right about the time senior middle linebacker Martez Smith was lost for the season with a knee injury.
"That really hurt us," fellow linebacker Korey Williams said. "But it's something we've just got to work past. We miss Martez, but we've got plenty of older players who can make plays. It's up to us to be in the right position and make plays when they come our way. Right now, little things are really hurting us."
Tulane's coming off of its own disappointment after blowing a 14-point, second-half lead in a 31-17 loss to SMU.
"That fourth quarter was a total meltdown on our part," Tulane coach Bob Toledo said. "That was really sad to see after we played as well as we did the first three quarters. As I've told the players Monday in our meeting and I've told the coaches — it's everybody's fault. Everybody is to blame — the players and the coaches. The reason I say that is that I don't want any finger pointing."
Southern Miss is trying to avoid the same thing, needing one more win to become bowl eligible for the 17th straight season.
USM's offense has been productive over the last month, scoring at least 41 points per game in each of the past four games. Freshman Kendrick Hardy has emerged as a potential star, rushing for a career-high 147 yards and two touchdowns against UAB.
"His nickname is Mule, which came with him from high school," Fedora said. "He's a hard-nose, downhill runner that gets down behind his pads. He's not worried about making you miss or being flashy. He's just going to stick his foot in the ground, make one cut and get north."
Hardy's emergence is another sign USM has plenty of talent stockpiled on its roster. Now the Golden Eagles need to limit the turnovers, penalties and other self-inflicted problems. Though Tulane is Saturday's opponent — that's not who scares Fedora.
"We need to stop losing to Southern Miss," Fedora said. "We are our own worst enemy right now."