Army game opens up many questions
HATTIESBURG If there was one overriding impression from listening to the broadcast of the University of Southern Mississippi's game against Army last week, it was this: The Golden Eagles appeared to be a tired football team.
USM seemed to be lethargic and without emotion, and that is not like them. Whatever else the situation may be, you can usually depend on the Golden Eagles to play with controlled fury, but that was definitely not the case against the Black Knights of the Hudson.
The Eagles did win the game 27-6, largely because they have a pronounced talent advantage over Army, which probably needs to be playing Division I-AA ball.
But they didn't look very good doing so. Army racked up 393 yards of offense Saturday, and the only reason the game wasn't closer was the fact that Army quarterback Matt Silva threw six interceptions. USM, on the other hand, gained just 303 yards and made 16 first downs.
Excuses are for losers, but certainly there are several factors that contributed to USM's poor performance against Army. A lot of key players, including star running back Derrick Nix, spent most of the week suffering from a stomach virus, and the team's practice schedule was completely disrupted by Tropical Storm Isidore.
The win put USM at 4-1 overall and 2-0 in Conference USA. As some wise guy once said, there's no such thing as an ugly win or a pretty loss.
Most importantly, the Eagles have a welcome open date this weekend before traveling to Tampa, Fla., to play a better-than-average South Florida team.
This will be a good opportunity to heal some nagging injuries. Standout middle linebacker Rod Davis, for one, has played through a laundry list of various injuries, including a bruised shoulder, sprained wrist, a thigh bruise and tendinitis in a knee.
But, perhaps most significantly, this will be a chance for Eagle coaches to go back to the drawing board concerning some key personnel. More to the point, it looks as though the competition for the starting quarterback position has been reopened.
Starter Micky D'Angelo had horrendous games the past two weeks, and worse, he's taken concussions in both of those games. Dustin Almond came off the bench to finish off Army, scoring USM's final touchdown on a 14-yard run, and a lot of fans are clamoring for Almond to start against USF.
But those fans should not forget Zac White, either. White is physically the most imposing of USM's three quarterbacks, a rangy 6-foot-5 with easily the strongest arm of the three. He was right in there with D'Angelo and Almond in preseason before he was set back by mononucleosis.
Almond is considered the better runner of the three, with White the better drop-back passer. D'Angelo's strength was his overall command of the offense, and his lack of mistakes in practice. But he's looked rattled the past two games, and has made some critical mistakes.
Thus head coach Jeff Bower and the Eagle offensive staff will reevaluate their quarterbacks, and the one who performs best in practice the next two weeks will start Oct. 12. This wouldn't be the first time Bower has thrown the position open in midseason, and he's gotten mixed results when he's done so.
In 1996, USM was 4-1, but had sputtered offensively behind Heath Graham. With 10 days to prepare for a nationally-televised game at East Carolina, Bower replaced Graham with Lee Roberts, and Roberts led the Eagles to a blowout win. Graham never played for USM again, as Roberts settled in as the starter for the next two years.
But in 1999, after Jeff Kelly had struggled early, Bower gave Cable Davis the start for a big game at Texas A&M, and the results were disastrous. Davis gave A&M two touchdowns off interceptions on poorly-thrown passes, Kelly was back in the huddle before the game was done, and Davis didn't even finish the season at USM.
There is a larger issue at work here, however, and that is the relative effectiveness of the one-back set that has been USM's stock in trade for many years. It seems that defenses have begun to figure out the one-back set and have devised some effective ways to defeat it.
With Nix gone after this season and a stable of good, young backs returning, that might be a good time to take a serious look at replacing the one-back with a pro-style offense. But that's not going to happen now, no matter how fervently some USM fans may grouse about it.
In the meantime, USM coaches have some other concerns, like beefing up a defensive front that has been vulnerable to the run. Eagle linebackers and safeties have been making way too many tackles, and opposing backs have been allowed too much room to run, especially up the middle.
Sophomore Eric Scott got his first start against Army at defensive tackle, and you can look for some other changes there as well. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is a demanding fellow, and if someone isn't getting the job done, he won't be shy about trying someone who will.
So this will be an interesting two weeks as the Golden Eagles recharge their batteries and retool for the stretch run. No doubt, USM is happy with its record, but Bower and his brain trust can't be happy with the direction of their team, especially considering their toughest foes lie just ahead.