Billed as the “Rivalry In Dixie,” the next installment of the long-running series between Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss kicks off at 2:30 p.m. today at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
However, unlike most cases in years past, today’s contest is steeped in significance.
The Bulldogs, league-mates with the Golden Eagles for only the second season, roll into Hattiesburg alone atop the Conference USA West Division standings at 4-3 overall and 3-0 in conference play. Southern Miss sits at 3-4 and 1-2.
The series, which the Golden Eagles lead 31-14, is the third-longest running one in Southern Miss history. But prior to last season, it was always a non-conference matchup. Even last year’s tussle was a non-division tilt.
Nevertheless, Bulldog head coach Skip Holtz — in just his second year leading Louisiana Tech — is touting today’s game as one that means more than most other games on the schedule.
“With Southern Miss and the 45 previous games, there is tradition,” he said. “There is history and we are only 3 ½ hours away. We recruit against each other. We are in the same conference. I think three of the last four games have come down to the final possession. I definitely think it is a huge rivalry.”
Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken isn’t so sure.
“I think everybody is dying for something to be called a rivalry,” he said. “I think it’s natural to think that could develop into a rivalry. But I don’t know if it’s there yet. It’s two teams trying to take another step forward in year two of their program.”
The Bulldogs will look to prolific junior running back Kenneth Dixon and what’s been a stingy defense from time to time to help them take the next step.
“They’ve continued to play better on both sides (of the football),” Monken said. “It’s going to be a real challenge for us, but we’ve continued to play better and better as well. Not always perfect, but we’ve continued to get better.”
Led by Dixon, who is averaging 91.4 yards per game on the ground and has scored 11 total touchdowns, Louisiana Tech is fifth in C-USA with 33.1 points per game.
But it’s been the Bulldogs’ defense — coordinated by former Texas and Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz — that has been the difference thus far.
In Louisiana Tech’s home victory over UTSA last week, the Bulldogs created four turnovers, one that was returned for a touchdown. This season, Louisiana Tech ranks 17th in the nation in turnover margin.
“They (beat UTSA) because of their defense,” Monken said. “That’s how they won, and their offense played good enough to win.”
Holtz believes his ball-hawking secondary will have to be on its toes against the Golden Eagles, which rank third in C-USA in pass offense at 272.7 yards per game through the air.
“This will probably be the best passing team we’ve had the opportunity to play (this season),” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re real disciplined with our coverages.”
Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Miss
(4-3, 3-0 C-USA) (3-4, 1-2 C-USA)
• When: 2:30 p.m. today
• Where: M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
• Television: Jackson (WJTV-CBS 12; WLOO), Biloxi-Gulfport (WXXV-FOX), Meridian (WMDN-CBS) and Columbus/Tupelo/West Point/Houston (WCBI-CW)
• Radio: WXRR-FM (104.5); WXHB-FM (96.5); WFFF-FM (96.7)
• Last meeting: 36-13, Louisiana Tech (2013)
• All-time series: 31-14, Southern Miss
Today’s contest against Louisiana Tech is Southern Miss’ chance to officially serve notice to the rest of Conference USA that it is back.
The Bulldogs come into town 4-3 and 3-0 in league action, sitting alone atop the West Division standings. They’ve gotten there by feeding opposing defenses a steady dose of running back Kenneth Dixon, throwing it enough to take some pressure off of Dixon and a defense that has been very good thus far.
The Golden Eagles enter the game with a 3-4 overall mark and a 1-2 record versus C-USA competition. Todd Monken’s team has taken big strides forward on offense and defense since opening league play against Rice, including having rung up more than 500 yards of offense in back-to-back games.
Having to possibly go into battle without middle linebacker Brian Anderson could throw a wrench into things for Southern Miss.
However, Monken’s bunch is playing with quite a bit of confidence.
Jason Munz, sports writer
Keep an eye on
• Kenneth Dixon, running back: The Bulldogs’ power back, who has already scored 11 touchdowns this season (nine on the ground) is the centerpiece of Skip Holtz’s offense. That will not change today.
Unit that could give USM fits
• Louisiana Tech’s secondary: Led by Terrell Pinson, a hybrid safety/linebacker, the Bulldogs have been very good at creating turnovers. At 18 this season, Louisiana Tech is tied for seventh in the country in turnovers created.
3 Things We’re Talking About
Dixon is a beast — plain and simple.
His yards on the ground so far this season are down, but the production is just as good as advertised. He’s rushing for 91.4 yards per game and has scored nine rushing touchdowns and twice through the air.
A bruiser that carries the ball a lot, Dixon is also capable of the explosive play. His longest run from scrimmage this season was a 99-yard scamper.
How the Golden Eagles match up against him will go a long way toward determining the outcome of today’s contest. If they can figure out a way to bottle him up and keep him consistently going east-and-west, Southern Miss will have every opportunity to win today’s game.
Mullens coming into his own
Last week at North Texas, Southern Miss sophomore Nick Mullens surpassed his passing yardage total from a year ago. By a significant margin.
He’s also developing into a competent threat to scramble a handful of times a game.
Mullens is currently third in Conference USA in passing yards per game at 272.7. His 1,909 passing yards this season are good enough for 19th in the country.
With each week that goes by, Mullens has a better understanding of what it takes to be a successful Division I quarterback.
The scary part is, in this writer’s opinion, he hasn’t been nearly as good as he has the potential to be.
Over the past few weeks, Southern Miss has gotten much closer to the even keel that Todd Monken wants his team to play at.
The defense has played very well over the last six quarters and the offense started turning the corner way back against Rice.
The Golden Eagles have put together 500 yards or more of total offense in each of the past two games, and have also run for more than 200 yards in two different games this season — unheard of in 2012 and 2013.
Not only that, but special teams has enjoyed a resurgence this season thanks in large part to Corey Acosta. The senior has already kicked three more field goals this season than he did in 12 games a year ago.
As long as Southern Miss gets solid play in all three phases of the game, they’ll have a chance to win every game left on the schedule.
Jason Munz, sports writer
Get the inside scoop on today’s game between Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, Page 4B.