By Shane Stovall
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The Louisville Cardinals are on the road again this Saturday as they travel to Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to renew an “oldie but goodie” rivalry when they take on first year Head Coach Ellis Johnson and the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. The Cardinals and Eagles played every season from 1978 to 1991 and first started this series way back on November 25, 1949. Southern Miss won that game 26-21 and holds an advantage over Louisville with an 18-10-1 record. The Golden Eagles won 9 in a row from 1982-1990 by an average score of 28-18. Louisville currently holds a five game winning streak against the Eagles with the last win coming in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in 2010. That game along with most of the other past games had many big plays and exciting moments, probably none bigger though, than Jeremy Wright’s 95 yard kick return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
This year’s Golden Eagles are off to a rough start at 0-3 with losses to Nebraska, East Carolina and Western Kentucky. The Eagles are being outscored by an average of three touchdowns at 38-17. Part of the struggles start with the poor passing game and uncertainty at the quarterback position. USM mainly uses two quarterbacks in 6-foot-4 215 pound Junior, Chris Campbell and the 6 foot tall 200 pound True Freshman, Anthony Alford. Campbell is your prototypical pocket passer while Alford is a dangerous mix of pass and run. Between the two, they are only averaging 136 yards per game passing. Alford is second on the team in rushing yards with 126 on 44 carries and has the only 2 touchdowns on the ground. The Eagles aren’t too bad running the ball at 146 yards per game with most of that coming from the above mentioned Alford and the 5-foot-11 210 pound Senior Running Back, Desmond Johnson. Johnson leads the team with 165 yards rushing on 31 attempts (5.3 yards per carry) but has yet to reach pay dirt. As you can imagine with the low passing numbers, USM doesn’t have a receiver with eye popping numbers. Tracy Lampley, a 5-foot-9 168 pound senior, leads the team with 82 yards on 5 receptions. Markese Triplett is a bigger more physical receiver at 6-foot-4 223 pounds and also has 5 receptions for slightly less yards than Lampley (75) but does have a touchdown to his credit. USM returns six starters from last season on offense with four of those being seniors on the offensive line so there is potential for them to turn things around.
While the USM offense is able to run the ball with some success, the USM defense is leaking like a sieve and allowing the opposing team to run for an average of 238 yards per game and a 5.6 average per carry. That should bode well for the Cardinals who average 165 yards rushing at a clip of 4.2 yards per carry. The Eagles have three new starters on the defensive line but do have a phenomenal player in 6-foot-5 240 pound “Bandit”, Jamie Collins. Collins was Second Team Conference USA and did a little bit of everything last year by recording 98 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 8 pass break ups and 1 interception. For those that are of the “what can he do for me now” culture, Collins recorded 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack against a good Nebraska team. On the season, he leads the team in sacks (2), tackles for loss (6.5), total tackles (27), pass’ broken up (3) and passes defended (3). Collins was actually recruited as a defensive back before moving to linebacker and now his bandit position.
First year Head Coach, Ellis Johnson spent the last four years as the Defensive Coordinator at South Carolina. Johnson has a previous stop in Hattiesburg as a Defensive Coordinator back in 1998 and 1999. Southern Miss also has two new Coordinators trying to put their stamp on the program. First year Offensive Coordinator, Ricky Bustle was the Quarterback Coach at Tulane last year while the Defensive Coordinator is a familiar name to Louisville fans. Tommy West, who had the same title last year at the University of Alabama Birmingham, has faced Louisville in the past as the Head Coach at Memphis from 2001 to 2009. The Golden Eagles went 12-2 last season and knocked off Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl and cost Conference USA a big paycheck by bouncing #7 Houston out of the BCS with a 49-28 victory in the last week of the regular season.
(Pictured, #22 Jamie Collins is a great athlete)
While this year’s Southern Miss team is struggling and has a ton of new faces on the field and on the sideline wearing headsets, history tells us that this weekend’s game will be close. Louisville’s last three wins against the Golden Eagles were only by a combined 8 points while the average score from the last five games is 29-20 in favor of the Cardinals. Make no mistake, on paper Louisville should win pretty easily but as we all know, games are not played on paper and as Charlie Strong has harped about his team being young and still not mature enough to finish games, this game could be very close. Hattiesburg is a tough venue and the Eagles are 10-2 at home in the last two seasons with the only losses coming by way of East Carolina and UAB by 1 point each. One main reason that Southern Miss scares me is their return game. While the Golden Eagles only have one punt return for 19 yards this season, they do have two very dangerous kick returner’s in Tracy Lampley and 5-foot-7 165 pound Junior, Justin Sims. Lampley has 5 kick returns for 184 yards (36.8 avg.) and a 100 yard return for a touchdown against Nebraska. Sims has been almost equally impressive with five returns for 139 yards (27.8 avg.). Louisville has not been horrible on kickoff coverage but they have given up a few big returns and opponents are averaging almost 25 yards per return.
Final Analysis and Prediction: History has a way of repeating itself and history says this should be a close game however I think both teams are much different than the teams that played each other in the past. The point spread currently has Louisville as a 10 point favorite and I’d say that is probably about right. Louisville should be able to run the ball against the Eagles and move the chains. Teddy Bridgewater can pick apart any defense when he’s protected and has a little time. Going up against a defense that only has 4 sacks and 1 interception to its credit means that Bridgewater could have some video game like numbers. Southern Mississippi is still searching for a #1 quarterback and their team identity, however if there was ever a game for them to be pumped up for, Saturday would be that game. USM does not face another team this year that is currently ranked in the top 25 so this could be their signature moment for 2012 and I expect they will be fired up and the roughly 36,000 fans should be raucous. With all that said, Brett Favre is not walking onto that field and I’m still picking the Cardinals to come out victorious by a score of 27-10. I think Cardinal offensive line and running backs will be able to pick up first downs and wear down the defense. Bridgewater should be able to complete a high percentage of passes and keep the Eagles defense on their heels and guessing. I also feel like the Louisville defense will come out and play their best game of the season and with the Golden Eagles struggling to move the ball through the air, they will be forced to run the ball more and Louisville can stack the box and create three and outs. This is not a typical Southern Miss team as they have too many new faces and new schemes and are still trying to find themselves. The young Cardinals are still improving and learning valuable lessons along the way. Holding on to be North Carolina and coming from behind to win against FIU were valuable teaching tools not only to the young players but the coaches as well. Now, can the Cardinals can take what they learned from those games and carry it to the field and have recent history repeat itself?