Southern Miss hopes uncertainty helps vs. Nebraska
Southern Mississippi is the obvious underdog when it travels to face No. 17 Nebraska on Saturday.
But with a new coach, new quarterback and a revamped defense, the Golden Eagles hope to use the unknown to their advantage.
First-year coach Ellis Johnson hasn't been particularly secretive during preseason camp, but he's just vague enough with the team's progress to keep the Cornhuskers guessing. Johnson announced on Monday that junior Chris Campbell would start at quarterback against Nebraska, but also acknowledged that Anthony Alford and Ricky Lloyd could see time under center.
The uncertainty has kept the Nebraska film room busy.
''There's a lot of guess work, so that's a little bit of a concern,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Of course, the 60-year-old Johnson has been around a long time and isn't a complete unknown - especially for the Cornhuskers. As South Carolina's defensive coordinator last season, his fingerprints were all over the defense that helped beat Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl, even though Johnson had already left to take over at Southern Miss.
The Golden Eagles aren't bothered by playing top-line competition. They went on the road and beat Virginia 30-24 last season and also thrashed Kansas at home in 2010. But the Cornhuskers will be a much tougher test.
''Southern Miss as a program is no stranger to these challenges and I think our players will handle it well,'' Johnson said. ''But frankly, the players that come into this room to meet every day, they have not been in any kind of fight like this yet and we're going to have to see how they respond.''
The main challenge for Southern Miss will be stopping Nebraska's power running game - which features quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead. The two combined for more than 2,200 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns last season.
The no-frills, option-based offense is very different than what Southern Miss usually faces in Conference USA, with its reputation for wide-open, pass-happy approach that puts a premium on athleticism over strength. Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tommy West likes to call it ''basketball on grass.''
But there will be no confusing sports when Nebraska runs its offense at Southern Miss. It will be vintage football.
Johnson said Southern Miss has the speed to match Nebraska, but would have more trouble with the Cornhuskers' size advantage.
''The physicality of it is different,'' Johnson said. ''We're going to have to tackle some bigger, stronger running backs than we have been. I think that's going to be the whole difference - yards after contact.''
On offense, Campbell won the quarterback job after nearly a month of competition. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior from Collierville, Tenn., has waited three seasons for his turn to lead the Golden Eagles, and won the job primarily for his knowledge of the system and consistency in the passing game.
''The thing that Chris brings is some stability right now,'' Southern Miss offensive coordinator Steve Buckley said. ''We're going into a stadium that holds 86,000. It's going to be loud. It's going to be nationally televised. We know that and we feel that Chris is a mature young man.''
But Campbell probably won't see every snap. Alford, a freshman, has impressed with his ability to make plays on the ground and through the air. Lloyd is much like Campbell - a capable thrower who doesn't make many mistakes.
Buckley said Campbell's his man at the beginning of the game, but circumstances could dictate changes.
''Do we want to play three quarterbacks on Saturday? No,'' Buckley said. ''Could it happen that way? Yes.''
Johnson said he hopes Southern Miss won't need any of the three quarterbacks to be a hero. The Golden Eagles return a deep group of running backs, including Tracy Lampley, Kendrick Hardy and Jeremy Hester. There's also a decent amount of experience on the offensive line.
''If we give them protection, if we have success running the ball, that's going to take a lot of pressure on those guys,'' Southern Miss offensive lineman Austin Quattrochi said
But Johnson knows rotating quarterbacks or any other type of trickery probably won't be enough to beat Nebraska.
The Golden Eagles must be nearly flawless in every phase.
''If I had to point to two big things that I hope I can put my finger on at the end of that ball game and feel good about, it's that we tackled well defensively and executed on offense without missed assignments and dead plays,'' Johnson said.
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