No. 24 Southern Miss prepares for No. 7 Houston

Southern Miss has its first 10-win season since 1988. Now the

24th-ranked Golden Eagles want their first Conference USA title

since 2003.

Standing in the way: The most prolific passing quarterback in

NCAA history.

Southern Miss is preparing for its first C-USA championship game

appearance since 2006. The Golden Eagles travel to face No. 7

Houston and its high-flying offense on Saturday, led by sixth-year

senior quarterback Case Keenum.

”We wouldn’t rather be anywhere else,” Southern Miss defensive

coordinator Dan Disch said. ”But it’s a heckuva challenge. They

can humble you quick and we’re well aware of that.”

After three oh-so-close seasons under coach Larry Fedora, the

Golden Eagles finally captured the C-USA’s Eastern Division title

on Saturday with a 44-7 win against Memphis 44-7. Fedora’s teams

have always possessed a potent offense, but it’s an improved

defense that moved Southern Miss to the top of the division.

That defense is about to face easily its biggest challenge.

”There’s no secret to what they do,” Southern Miss coach Larry

Fedora said. ”It’s not like they are doing something different

week in and week out. They do what they do. They are going to run

the routes the way they run them. They are going to go up tempo.

They are going to run the ball when you give them numbers, and they

will try to take advantage of you.”

Keenum’s numbers are staggering, and the Heisman candidate is

already the NCAA career leader in passing yards, touchdown passes

and total offense. He’s completed 342 of 467 passes (73.2 percent)

this season for 4,726 yards, 43 touchdowns and just three

interceptions. The Cougars lead the Football Bowl Subdivision by

averaging 52.7 points and 613.2 total yards.

Southern Miss linebacker Ronnie Thornton said Keenum’s obviously

a huge reason for all those yards and touchdowns, but he has plenty

around him.

”His timing with his receivers is great and they’ve really got

an ability to make a play after the catch,” Thornton said. ”Some

teams, you have one or two players you have to watch for, but

wherever he throws that player can make a huge play.”

Houston’s Patrick Edwards has caught 74 passes for 1,496 yards

and 18 touchdowns. Charles Sims has rushed for 750 yards and nine

touchdowns while averaging 7.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have

won their past seven games by a combined score of 406-101 for an

average margin of victory of nearly 44 points per game.

But Thornton said the Golden Eagles aren’t going to get

distracted by the gaudy statistics.

”At the beginning of the season we set the goal to win the

conference championship,” Thornton said. ”We didn’t set a goal to

see if we could get to the championship. We want to win. Come

Saturday, we’ll see how that goes.”

Southern Miss may not have the same immaculate resume as the

Cougars, but there are still reasons for confidence.

The Golden Eagles have won nine of their past 10 games, with the

only setback coming on Nov. 17 in a surprising 34-31 loss to

Alabama-Birmingham. But they recovered with an easy victory over

Memphis to gain some momentum heading into Saturday’s showdown –

which is the first time the C-USA championship has been played

between two nationally-ranked teams.

And even though the numbers are quite as eye-popping, Southern

Miss has its own successful veteran quarterback – fifth-year senior

Austin Davis. He’s thrown for 3,052 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10

interceptions this season, providing a steady influence that led

the Golden Eagles to win after win even as the team’s top three

running backs were injured for large parts of the season.

The revolving door of running backs was just one of the

challenges the Golden Eagles faced this season. They also lost

starting middle linebacker Korey Williams to a knee injury after

just four games and learned an entirely new defensive scheme during

the offseason when Disch installed his 4-2-5 scheme after coming to

Southern Miss from Illinois.

Fedora said figuring out a way to stop Houston is just another

obstacle. After four years of waiting for a chance at a conference

title, the Golden Eagles aren’t going to complain about the

matchup.

”It’s probably taken longer (to make the C-USA title game) than

I wanted it to, to be honest,” Fedora said. ”I felt like we’ve

been in a position to do it each and every year and just didn’t get

over the hump or didn’t get it done for a lot of different reasons

… This year, this team has overcome a lot of things to put

themselves in a position to play for the conference

championship.”

—–

Follow David Brandt on Twitter:

http://www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP