Golden Eagles look to improve to 2-0 in C-USA

HATTIESBURG – The Rice Owls visit Southern Miss on Saturday night in search of their first win of the season.

But Rice’s 0-4 record may be a bit deceiving.

It’s not so much what its record is, but who they have played and how they have played.

“They’ve played everybody tough and they are a team that lost in overtime last week and played Baylor strong,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “They’re talented, the quarterback makes plays. It’s conference play and you know any time you play in conference play, whether it’s on the road or at home, it is going to be a 60-minute war.

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“That’s the reality of playing in conference. We have to be ready. We have our plate full and have got to be ready to go.”

Southern Miss is 3-1 overall, 1-0 in Conference USA, and Saturday’s 6 p.m. game at M.M. Roberts Stadium is another league game.

Rice, coached by David Baliff, lost 46-14 to Conference USA defending champion Western Kentucky, 31-14 to 3-1 Army, 38-10 to No. 13 Baylor and 42-35 in double overtime to North Texas.

In 2007, Baliff won his first career game when the Owls defeated Southern Miss 31-29.

Last week against North Texas, Rice quarterback Tyler Stehling passed for 232 yards and ran for 92 more and receiver Zach Wright caught 10 passes for 120 yards.

As for the Golden Eagles, junior running back Ito Smith has run for at least 100 yards in all four games and is ranked third nationally with 540 rushing yards.

“He’s a great player,” USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “The first (defensive) guy hardly ever tackles him. If he played slot receiver all the time, he’d be the best. I’m going to be moving him around a lot, but I can’t overload him.”

Last week in a 34-7 victory over UTEP, both Smith and George Payne lined up as running backs, and USM had only three wide receivers when both were in the game.

“Both George (Payne) and Ito (Smith) are very talented young men,” Hopson said. “They can run, they can catch; they can do whatever. It just gives us a little bit more flexibility.”

Southern Miss is averaging 247.5 yards rushing per game and 235.8 yards passing per game. Starting quarterback Nick Mullens is 74 of 127 for 58.3 percent and 913 yards. He has thrown nine touchdown passes.

“We’re still working on his new receivers,” Hopson said. “That time is coming down and it’s getting better and better each week. He and D.J.  (Thompson) made some critical catches and connections (against UTEP). I thought Allenzae’s (Staggers) shot up the middle was a great throw and catch. It really gave us a charge.”

Thompson leads the team with 13 receptions, followed by Smith with 12, Staggers with 11 and Isaiah Jones with 10.

Defensively, the Golden Eagles are stout, especially in the second half. They have not allowed a second-half point in three of their four games.

Defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said playing hard, executing, seeing what the opposition does and making adjustments.

“It’s the whole defensive staff,” Pecoraro said about tweaking the defense during games. “At halftime we’ll get together and say, ‘OK, these are the plays they’re attacking us with. What are our adjustments for it. If they attack you once and got a play out of it, there’s a good chance you’re going to see it again.’”

Cornerback Curtis Mikell, who doesn’t start but plays a lot, intercepted two passes against UTEP, one of which he ran back 100 yards for a touchdown.

Pecoraro also praised defensive tackle Dylan Bradley, who has been in on a team-high 26 tackles this season, including six behind the line of scrimmage.

“When you think Southern Miss, you think Dylan Bradley,” Pecoraro said. “Dylan is what Southern Miss is all about.”

Festivities for the game include the Parent and Family Tailgate, 1996 C-USA Championship Reunion and Breast Cancer Awareness Game. Fans are urged to wear a splash of pink for breast cancer awareness.