NCAA Football Preview - Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
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From The Sports Network By Ralph Lauro, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Golden Eagles built on their already rich tradition in 2003 by winning the C-USA title for the fourth time in eight years. The team went undefeated in league play (8-0) for the third time in their eight- year stint in the league. Southern Miss also posted a solid 9-4 overall mark, which earned it its sixth bowl invitation in the past seven years. The squad was also highly decorated with 15 players being placed on the All-league teams. The Golden Eagles started off an even 3-3 before ripping off six straight wins, including a 40-28 triumph over undefeated and nationally-ranked TCU that clinched the C-USA title. However, the club saw its winning streak come to an end in the Liberty Bowl, as it was blanked by Utah, 17-0. Still, the 2003 season was one to remember for Southern Miss, which used its tough defense to dominate games. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: The offense was no where near spectacular in 2003, and as a matter of fact it struggled greatly at times. The Golden Eagles averaged just 22.5 ppg and were held to three points or less three times. Still, Southern Miss found a way to score when it had to, but its 122.1 rushing yards per game average will need to improve greatly this season if it is to have the same kind of success. Anthony Harris is slated to be the starting tailback after leading the team with 671 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in '03. Tim Blackwell, who ran for 332 yards and three scores, will also see time at the tailback spot. Handing the ball to those guys will be Dustin Almond, who took over the signal-calling duties midway through last season. He was instrumental in the Eagles' second-half run, as he passed for 1,877 yards and 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Almond should have even more success this season with the return of the team's top three receivers in Marvin Young, DaRon Lawrence and Antwon Courington. Young led the club with 42 catches that went for 703 yards and seven touchdowns, while Lawrence and Courington combined for 73 receptions, 1,068 yards and five scores. As for the offensive line, they enter the 2004 season with perhaps the most experience of any other group on the team. Four of the five starters return from last year, including All- conference linemen Jeremy Parquet and Chris White. All-C-USA Freshman team member Travis Cooley and starter George Batiste also return to the mix. DEFENSE: The defense has been the heart and soul of Southern Miss football over the years and last season was no exception. The unit ranked fifth nationally against the pass (174.0 ypg) and 23rd in total defense (329.7 ypg). The unit also did an exceptional job in limiting opponents from scoring, allowing just 17.4 ppg. However, three of the top defensive players in the schoolâ¿¿s history are gone, including three-time All-American linebacker Rod Davis. Entering the 2004 season, only four starters return, led by All- American linebacker Michael Boley. Boley is one of the most talented players in C-USA after posting 151 tackles and a team-high 11 sacks a year ago. He is joined by Antoine Cash, who recorded 74 tackles last season. Defensive tackles Eric Scott and Chad Ruffin are the other two returning starters. Scott made 39 stops and eight TFLs last year, while Ruffin came up with 38 tackles and seven TFLs. The biggest concern for the Eagles this season is in the secondary where no starters return. Gone from last yearâ¿¿s secondary are some of the best defensive backs in the schoolâ¿¿s history, including two-time All-American Etric Pruitt. Two-time All-Conference USA corner Greg Brooks is also gone. Stepping in as the leaders of the secondary this season will be Travis Coley and John Eubanks. Coley will handle the free safety spot after being used primarily as a nickle back last season. He finished 2003 as the team's fourth-leading tackler with 79 stops. As for Eubanks, he emerged as a starting corner out of spring and saw some extensive playing time last season. He finished last season with 31 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. SPECIAL TEAMS: Freshman All-American Darren McCaleb will be back to handle the placekicking duties this season. He was simply amazing in his first season, connecting on 14-of-17 field goals, including 11-of-12 from inside 40 yards. Punter Luke Johnson is also back after averaging 42.1 ypp on a conference-high 79 kicks. The Eagles also welcome back two of the top return men in the nation in Eubanks and Young. Eubanks ranked fourth nationally in returning kickoffs (29.4 ypc), while Young's 13.6 yards per punt return ranked 10th in the nation. OUTLOOK: The Golden Eagles really excelled in the second half of the 2003 season and much of that success can be attributed to the play of Almond. The gritty junior should only be better this season, as the USM offense returns nine starters from a year ago. However, the defense was dealt several big blows following last season and it shouldn't be expected to be nearly as dominant. Still, there is plenty of talent on both sides of the ball for Southern Miss to make another run at the C-USA title. The determining factor will be if the offense can produce enough points to compensate for the mistakes that young Eagle defenders are likely to make.