Thursday, November 26, 2015
Southern Mississippi has won more games over the past six weeks then it did in the previous three seasons combined.
Now the Golden Eagles (8-3, 6-1 CUSA) will try to put an exclamation point on a remarkable turnaround when they travel to face Louisiana Tech (8-3, 6-1) on Saturday in a game that will decide the Western Division title.
It's been quite a ride for a program that had a 4-32 record over the previous three seasons, including a winless 2012. The Golden Eagles are already bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.
"It's been awesome and all about executing on the field and trusting each other in big situations," Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens. "We've been able to relax, stay focused and respect our opponent. Now we're trying to keep that momentum headed into the game against Louisiana Tech."
Southern Miss is on a five-game winning streak since mid-October, pummeling opponents with an offense that's scoring more than 46 points a game over that span.
Mullens has teamed with third-year coach Todd Monken to form the centerpiece of the Golden Eagles' revival.
Mullens, a 6-foot-1, 196-pound junior from Hoover, Alabama, was knocked around during his first two seasons as Southern Miss struggled to build an offensive line and running game around him. Now those two areas are vastly improved and Mullens' numbers have skyrocketed — he ranks eighth nationally with 3,578 yards passing and has thrown 32 touchdowns to just eight interceptions.
"We knew we'd be pretty good if we could just run the ball a little and keep Nick upright," Monken said. "So far, we've usually been able to do that."
Mullens has plenty of options around him as playmakers. Casey Martin has caught 68 passes for 744 yards and seven touchdowns while Michael Thomas is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns.
Jalen Richard has run for 1,047 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Ito Smith has added 814 yards on the ground and four touchdowns.
The only caveat to the hot streak by Southern Miss is that it has come against some weak competition. The five teams the Golden Eagles beat have a combined 18-37 record.
The last time Southern Miss faced a team with a winning record, it lost a 31-10 road game to Marshall. Louisiana Tech — which is led by former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel — will provide a similar challenge.
Monken said the Marshall loss was a good experience for his team because it showed what it takes to compete at that level. The Golden Eagles had a 10-7 lead in the second quarter before mistakes and missed opportunities led to 24 straight points for the Thundering Herd.
"The thing we learned about that game is we don't need any help to win. We don't need lucky breaks because we're good enough," Monken said. "But we must play well."