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Southern Miss can't rely on luck forever

By By Stan Caldwell / Columnist
October 20, 2002
HATTIESBURG Whoever coined the expression, "statistics lie," must have had Saturday's University of Southern Mississippi football game in mind.
The Golden Eagles were pushed all over the field by the University of Cincinnati, giving up 409 yards of offense including 263 on the ground while struggling to put up 211 yards on their own. Cincinnati had 22 first downs to 11 for USM and almost double the time of possession.
Yet USM walked off the field at M.M. Roberts Stadium winners by a 23-14 score. A Homecoming crowd of 28,031 left the stadium shaking its head at the absurdity of it, but that doesn't change the fact that the Eagles are still undefeated in Conference USA at 3-0 and are 5-2 overall.
USM won because it made three critical plays on defense that resulted in 16 points, and the Bearcats could not overcome their own mistakes.
Undoubtedly, when UC head coach Rick Minter reviews the stat sheet and watches the game tape, one question will roll over and over in his mind. He'll ask himself, "How in the world did we lose this game?"
Here's how. The Bearcats gave up a fumble that was returned 32 yards by USM linebacker Michael Boley to their own 5-yard-line, an interception that was returned 44 yards by Eagle safety Etric Pruitt for a touchdown and they committed 12 penalties for 104 yards in losses.
The Eagle defense also proved pretty resilient when it had to be. Cincinnati ventured inside the USM 20 four times and only got a touchdown and two field goals out of it.
Nevertheless, it wasn't exactly a euphoric group of Eagles that spoke to the media after the game. They knew, as did everyone in attendance, that USM was fortunate to win this game.
Yes, you sometimes make your own fortune, as the Eagles did Saturday. But there was still plenty to be concerned about if you are a USM fan.
Begin with that figure of 263 yards rushing by Cincinnati. That has been USM's weakness all season long. The Bearcats came into the game dead last in C-USA in rushing with 109.7 yards per game. Yet Cincy consistently gashed the Eagles right up the middle and on several occasions around the ends.
Close your eyes and imagine UC's white uniforms transformed to crimson and it could have been Alabama, which rushed for 351 yards. Or perhaps you see the green of South Florida, which ran for 218 yards. Not coincidentally, both of those games represent USM's defeats this season.
Indeed, Cincinnati had four drives of 10 or more plays against USM, and only great work in the red zone kept the Bearcats from piling up touchdowns. That, too, has been a hallmark of this USM team, and it's a good thing.
But that doesn't get the Eagle offense off the hook, either. Saturday was the fourth straight game that USM has done very little on offense. After three quarters Saturday, the Golden Eagles had just 147 yards of offense, including just 66 yards on the ground.
Since opening the season with a bang, USM's rushing production has steadily dwindled. Derrick Nix finished with 77 yards on 19 carries, and 40 of that came in the fourth quarter.
The running game got very little help from quarterback Dustin Almond, who completed just 7 of 22 passes for 92 yards, and over a third of that total came on one play, a 33-yard pass to Chris Johnson that set up USM's first touchdown.
Almond is the second quarterback to play this season for the Golden Eagles, and one can't help recalling the old coaches' saw that says if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks.
In USM's case, the Eagles have three quarterbacks, and while head coach Jeff Bower says he has no plans to bench Almond, don't be shocked if Zac White gets his chance if Almond continues to struggle.
The reason is obvious. USM is heading into the meat of its schedule. Coming up next is a Wednesday night game at TCU on Oct. 30, and the Horned Frogs just got finished wiping out defending C-USA champ Louisville on Saturday to the tune of 45-31.
After that comes unpredictable UAB on the road, the showdown against Louisville, a much-improved Tulane team and finally East Carolina, which struggled early in the season, but is now 3-0 in the league.
Against that slate, USM cannot continue to count on luck and a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Saturday's win was nice, and important, but unless the Eagles take immediate steps to shore up their weaknesses, they may not win many more games this season.