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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Monday, November 14, 2005

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A pleasant morning it is not when one must read this about his alma mater's squad in his local online paper:
In what's become an increasingly unhealthy habit, the Golden Eagles lost a double-digit first-half lead.

The latest came just five days after USM had dodged two point-blank field goal attempts to beat Marshall in overtime on Tuesday night.

Sunday, despite dominating field position in the first quarter, USM managed to take just a 10-0 lead, and that was gone by halftime.

"There were so many missed opportunities, and things we did not do well," USM coach Jeff Bower said.

For example:
* USM surrendered 470 yards to the Cougars, the fourth consecutive game an opponent has topped the 400-yard mark.
* Houston running back Ryan Gilbert slashed for a career-high 144 yards and a touchdown. It was the third consecutive game an opposing back had run for a personal best.
* USM managed just 24 yards rushing against a team that was allowing 147 yards a game coming into Sunday night.

"We didn't do anything running the football," Bower said.

Toss in a quartet of costly penalties - two on offensive lineman George Batiste and two pass interference calls that kept UH drives alive - a couple of huge dropped passes and two missed field goals, and the door was left open for the Cougars to claw back from a slow start.
The tale of this fateful stretch:

- At UAB: Up 17-0 in the second quarter; USM allows three pass plays of 35 yards or longer, including a 58-yarder for a score, in the midst of a 21-7 Blazer run back into the game. USM hangs on, 37-28, despite giving up 487 yards, 407 passing. Seventeen Eagle points come after penalties on the UAB punt return/block team kept drives alive.
- At NC State: Up 14-0 in the third quarter, 17-7 entering the fourth quarter; USM has four possessions beginning in NC State territory in the first quarter, scoring only seven points. True freshman Andre Brown emerges from the bench for a school-record 248 yards rushing, including a 61-yard touchdown to spark NC State's 14-point rally to a 21-17 lead. Jasper Faulk's muffed punt with less than two minutes left eliminates any chance of a USM comeback.
- At Marshall: Up 10-0 in the first quarter, 17-7 at the half; USM allows over 200 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Backed up inside its own one with just over five minutes remaining, Marshall barrels down the field to set up a short game-winning kick as time expires; Southern Miss blocks the field goal, then watches as the Herd's overtime field goal try bounces off the upright. USM makes its kick to win 27-24.
- At Houston: Up 10-0 in the first quarter; USM trails by the end of the third quarter and is forced to make a furious fourth quarter rally after allowing a 63-yard scoring drive and one 83-yard touchdown pass. After recovering a fumble to set up one touchdown and an onside kick (so far as SMQ knows, the first successful onside kick in school history) to set up a potential tying field goal, quarterback Dustin Almond fumbles in Cougar territory without being hit to seal Houston's 27-24 win. Eagles allow 315 yards passing and 470 total yards.

Read those bullets again, and then read these again:
* USM surrendered 470 yards to the Cougars, the fourth consecutive game an opponent has topped the 400-yard mark.
* Houston running back Ryan Gilbert slashed for a career-high 144 yards and a touchdown. It was the third consecutive game an opposing back had run for a personal best.
* USM managed just 24 yards rushing against a team that was allowing 147 yards a game coming into Sunday night.
Three straight career-high rushing totals? This is not about a tough, strange four-game road trip.

USM hasnever been known much for offense, even when it was fielding a few record breakers (Lee Roberts, Derrick Nix, Sherrod Gideon, Todd Pinkston) in the late nineties. It's been consistently terrible this decade, never coming close to finishing in the top half of the nation statistically, and usually not even in the top half of Conference USA. But no matter what was going on with the offense, all it ever had to do was not lose the game. The defense would pick it up. The defense would hold the other team under 300 yards - under 250 if need be, sometimes better. The defense would force a turnover, maybe score itself. This was a given. With its defense, Southern could compete with, if not actually beat, anybody - offenses from Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee and Alabama had all been stuffed from 1997-2000, though usually in low-scoring USM losses. Four hundred yards? Unheard of, by anybody.

This was mostly true through 2003, when the defense of a very ordinary team capped a surprising conference championship year by completely stifling Urban Meyer's offense and future No. 1 pick Alex Smith in the Liberty Bowl despite an eventual 17-0 loss (both Utah touchdowns off of turnovers). But the chinks that had been coming in glimpses started showing in a big way last year: Nebraska, Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, TCU and especially California, which set all kinds of offensive records in M.M. Roberts Stadium, all ripped through the Eagle defense for monster days; Alabama, playing a third string quarterback with zero threat of a passing game, blasted USM for way over 200 rushing yards. Yet USM could rationalize: these are good teams, good offenses, good players - Cory Ross, Kenneth Darby, DeAngelo Williams, J.J. Arrington - and the team was still winning overall - the Eagles managed to beat Nebraska and Houston and take fourth-ranked Cal to the limit despite being statistically manhandled by each of these teams, and won seven and another bowl game; never mind the only victory over a winning team was a desperate comeback against UAB. The pride began to come - and this really began earlier and took hold in 2003 - in finding ways to win when you were really beaten, in bending but not breaking, in winning the punting, special teams and turnover battles and taking advantage of the chances that became available.

For an example of this sort of thought, read SMQ's brief prediction of yesterday's Houston game, where he overlooked horrific offensive and defensive rankings to tout the Eagles' advantages in turnover margin and, of all things, net punting, which are indicators of good field position. Turnovers and good field position being essential, you see, because the thought of the offense consistently driving on anyone remotely competent has been ludicrous for years; the thought of the defense stopping anyone from midfield in, as it used to routinely, is fast slipping into the realm of hopeless optimism.

SMQ recounts this because, although he's made brief weekly looks at his Golden Eagles, this is not a Southern Miss blog, and has not gone in-depth on the program. Indeed, he has thought relatively little about this team after a couple of seasons of rather intimate on-campus involvement the past couple years. This annual crisis, which has hit at exactly this point in the season now for the fifth time in six years - the other year, the 2003 C-USA championship season, began with the crisis (that team lost its first game, at not-yet powerful Cal, 30-2, and badly lost two more non-conference games to Nebraska and Alabama to sit at 3-3 at mid-season before winning six straight) - is tiring. And it continues to perpetuate itself because of eternal optimism, the clinging belief that, while certainly not a major player, USM remains a step above the other run-of-the-mill, mid-week ESPN2 fare because of its early dominance in the league; the annual crappy bowl game is fun, there is pride to be taken in the streak of winning seasons (nearly at twelve, with one more win in this season's final two games, one of the longest in the nation), preseason magazines always tout USM as a league favorite and "always the team to beat" in C-USA. USM still considers itself the league's bellweather, and fans expect to win the conference championship every year.

But that early success has not been repeated - other than the 2003 team, which did not nearly measure up to previous champions - since the 1999 team finished fourteenth in the country and the 2000 team pushed to the brink of the top ten before fading badly to 8-4. USM is 42-28 since its last really good team in 1999, and with exactly one win over a team anyone today would call "good" (undefeated TCU in 2003; the shutout of Alabama in 2000, the win over defending Big Ten champ Illinois in 2002 and last year's win over Nebraska were hailed in the immediate aftermaths, but those teams finished a combined 11-22).

The truth is - and the nation has surely long recognized this, without a second thought, but USM fans still have to wake up - Southern Miss has been slipping further and further into real, hardcore mediocrity, with one last gasp at league dominance two years ago, and that descent is nearing completion. It's a fallout SMQ predicted when Miami jumped ship to the ACC and left a void in the Big East: one-time underling Louisville has passed USM by and into the primetime of a BCS conference along with Cincinnati; newbie South Florida hardly bothered with C-USA before taking its next step up the ladder. Meanwhile, the most consistently successful C-USA football program - though, coincidentally, the only original league school not located in a major metro area and not home to a naturally large television audience - is left rusting atop the scrap heap, a half-game beneath Central Florida.

Is it good enough to go 7-5, scrapping along into crappy bowl games no one watches, and always feeling the conference title is a running back away? To still be a little bit better than State and Ole Miss, and taunt them for being too scared to put Southern on the schedule? A lot of programs have to deal with this reality, with having very little of note to tout, and the old image of Southern Miss as Conference USA king is one USM fans are going to have to learn to live without.

All that because of a loss by a field goal? Believe it - if they had SMQ's free format (and teensy, half-interested audience), the beat writers would have written this long ago. SMQ will now confine Southern Miss back to brief, weekly "Homerism" picks for the remainder of the season, in favor of the blog's stated emphasis on the country at large, for his sanity and yours.
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10:16 AM

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