Brett Hudson: ESPN 97.7FM
Louisiana Tech finishes its regular season by taking to the road for a Black Friday game of critical consequences, given a win would keep the Bulldogs in state for the Conference USA championship game. The numbers make it clear the game is a great matchup for Louisiana Tech, and here are some of those numbers.
North Texas jumped out to a 17-0 lead on Southern Miss in the first quarter last week, a common phenomenon for the Golden Eagles this year: Southern Miss has been outscored 125-76 in first quarters this year (average first quarter score of 11.3-6.9). That’s particularly troubling when facing Tech, which is 7-0 in games it leads at the end of the first quarter. When the 2016 Bulldogs are tied or losing at the end of the first quarter (the latter has only happened once, against Texas Tech), they are 1-3.
Southern Miss is tied for dead last in the nation in turnover margin, committing 29 of them while forcing 11 for an -18 margin. (Purdue also has a -18 turnover margin and the Boilermakers fired their coach, Darrell Hazell, on Oct. 16.) For context, no one in the conference has a turnover margin worse than -11 (FIU) and Louisiana Tech’s turnover margin for the season is +1: five fumbles recovered and eight interceptions for 13 turnovers forced, seven fumbles lost and five interceptions thrown for 12 turnovers allowed. Furthermore, Southern Miss’ turnover problems have only gotten worse as the season has continued: the Golden Eagles had a -2 margin in September and a -7 margin in four games in October but already has a -9 margin in its three November games, losses to Charlotte, Old Dominion and North Texas.
While Southern Miss struggled with a quarterback issue last week, running back Ito Smith picked up the slack with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season, but there’s a catch to that number: most of those games have come against rushing defenses in the bottom third of the nation. One of those games came against Savannah State, so out of the Smith’s five 100-yard games against FBS competition, four of those five teams rank 92nd or worse in rushing yards per game allowed against FBS competition (North Texas 92nd, Marshall 94th, Kentucky 97th and UTEP 106th; Smith also did it against Troy, which ranks 14th). By that same measure, the Louisiana Tech defense ranks 22nd nationally.
Who doesn’t know the gaudy numbers behind the Louisiana Tech passing attack at this point? To refresh your memory, Louisiana Tech is in the top 10 nationally in the following statistical categories, certainly with several others not listed:
-First down per game
-Plays of 20 yards or more
-First down completion percentage
-Quarterback rating in the fourth quarter
Now let’s look at Southern Miss’ pass defense: It ranks 99th (out of 128) in yards per attempt allowed against FBS opponents, allowing 8 yards per attempt. Oddly enough, however, very few teams defend the pass on third down better than Southern Miss: the Golden Eagles are fourth in the nation in completion percentage allowed on third down at 41.9 percent – only Florida, Michigan and Ole Miss are better.
Now that I’ve said something nice about the Southern Miss defense, let’s get back to the not-so-good stuff: the Golden Eagles allow a ton of big plays. They have allowed 32 plays of 30 or more yards, tied for 109th in the nation with possibly the nation’s greatest example of systematic football futility: Kansas.
Finally, Southern Miss’ first-year head coach Jay Hopson has a track record of significant improvement after year one. Hopson was the head coach at Alcorn State for four years before taking the Southern Miss job: his 2012 Braves went 4-7, 4-5 in the SWAC; in the three seasons after that, his teams lost a combined 10 games and a combined six SWAC games. So, if the Bulldogs want to beat Southern Miss, precedent shows the window of opportunity will never be greater than right now.